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Bill Farrell, trained Olympic medalists, dies

Bill Farrell, left, is a guest on the

Bill Farrell, left, is a guest on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1972. Credit: Handout

Growing up, Leigh Farrell was always surprised when she'd hear stories about her father Bill's other life -- the one that didn't include his accomplishments as the longtime deputy mayor of Centre Island or his work as a business owner in Ronkonkoma.

Her surprise is understandable. Her father, Bill Farrell, had attended Hofstra, was an original "Marlboro Man," in advertisements, traveled the world, appeared on "The Tonight Show," and trained Olympic gold medal wrestlers, all before his daughter was born.

Bill Farrell, 82, died Saturday at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. He had suffered a stroke nine days earlier.

He was shy, but witty, and the type of man others naturally followed, said Leigh Farrell, 27.

"He was a true leader, he had no ego," she said. "He was a friend to everybody, and he worked so hard for everything that he accomplished, that's what I think everyone respected about him."

That respect extended to those who knew Farrell from his time as the head coach of the 1972 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team, which took on the world's best -- many from communist nations -- and on three occasions won gold.

"He took a real scientific approach to it," said gold medalist Wayne Wells, 65, who lives near Arcadia, Okla. "We did as much talking and mental preparation for the competition, almost as much as we prepared physically, and that was to get guys ready to face the Soviet bloc."

Farrell, who first wrestled when he was 26, was born in Omaha, and went to high school in Seattle before attending law school at St. John's University, and Hofstra, where he played football. After college, he joined the New York Athletic Club, where he wrestled, coached and later managed it as president. As a competitor, he won more than 300 matches.

After the Olympics, Farrell achieved a modicum of celebrity status. He yukked it up with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" couch, before pinning him down in a staged wrestling competition. Later, in 1985, Farrell was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by USA Wrestling.

"The success that was taking place was like no other," said 1972 gold medalist and wrestling legend Dan Gable of the team's achievements under Farrell's leadership. "There were 10 guys who hadn't been together before. But we had a guy who was a businessman, a politician; he had that kind of knowledge."

The Farrell family has not announced plans for a memorial service, though they expect to in several weeks.

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