Russell was born in New York City, and raised in Midland, Texas. He began swimming in high school for Midland High School, swimming in the new 50-meter “Alamo” which was later renamed in his honor: the “Douglas Russell Swimming Pool.” He was an all-around swimmer in high school” swimming competitively in butterfly, backstroke, and individual medley events. He was a tough competitor who was hard to beat but who brought out the best in swimmers around him.
He attended The University of Texas at Arlington, where he swam for coach Don Easterling’s UT Arlington Mavericks swimming and diving team in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competition. Doug Russell Park, part of the southern edge of the UT Arlington campus, is named in his honor. At the 1967 Pan American Games, he won a gold medal in the 200-meter individual medley. He also won an NCAA national championship in the 100-yard butterfly in 1968, and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national outdoor title in the 100-meter butterfly.
At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Russell won the first-ever gold medal awarded in the men’s 100-meter butterfly, an event which made its debut at the 1968 Olympics, in an upset over teammate and favorite Mark Spitz. He won another gold medal swimming the butterfly leg for the winning U.S. team in the 4-100-meter medley relay. Russell, together with relay teammates Charlie Hickcox (backstroke), Don McKenzie (breaststroke), and Ken Walsh (freestyle), set a new world record of 3:54.9 in the event final.
Russell was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer” in 1985. He remains involved in swimming as the head coach of the Austin Trinity Aquatic Club. He was initiated into the Texas Kappa Chapter at University of Texas-Arlington and remains an active alumnus.