Article image

by Allen Stark

April 25, 2008

A Masters swimmer from the beginning

Allen Stark writes: I was born in McAllen, Texas. We moved around when I was young, from McAllen to Shreveport, La., to Fort Worth, Texas, and then, when I was nine, to Tulsa, Okla. I first took swimming lessons when I was about five at the YMCA in Fort Worth, but I was around water from a very young age and was comfortable being in the water. At Boy Scout Camp I won the breaststroke event and I also failed the Lifesaving Merit Badge test the first time for insisting on swimming whip kick with side-stroke. I didn't start age group swimming until I was 14, swimming for the Tulsa Y Aquatic Club. When I made the high school swim team, I was excited, and considered it an accomplishment. I was the number two breaststroker on our team until the second half of my senior year, and my biggest thrill in high school was finishing second at the City Meet.

I went to Rice University and swam on the Varsity Team. Rice is the smallest Division 1 school and we didn't have scholarships. We were in the Southwest Conference with SMU and Texas. Generally we were swimming against other schools' second-string swimmers. It was great for me, though: I was one of the better swimmers on the team my freshman year, and one of the few Rice swimmers to score points at the Conference Meet. I was team captain my junior and senior years and being a swimmer was a central point of my identity in college. I also met my wife, Carol, partially through swimming. She was in most of the same classes with me, but we really started to notice each other when she was one of the few women trying to form a women's swim team. In those Pre-Title IX days they did not receive support from the university and it wasn't until our senior year that they could compete. They qualified a relay for nationals, which was much better than we men ever did. Carol and I got married right before graduation and shortly thereafter went to medical school together at Baylor College of Medicine. I wasn't able to train regularly in medical school, but I found that when I could, it was a great stress reliever.

I had read in Swimming World about the first Masters swim meets and looked forward to turning twenty-five and being able to compete again. I wasn't sure how to apply to swim Masters, but serendipitously, shortly before my 25th birthday, I read an article in the Houston paper about Ham and Mildred Anderson. They were really the founders of Masters swimming in the Houston area. I called them and pretty soon went to my first Masters meet, which was held in the pool in their backyard. It was 1974—my last year of medical school and I was able to train a little more. Carol swam with me when our schedule allowed it and we went to meets together. She liked swimming more than competing, so she went to fewer meets, though she generally swam more yardage (she's a distance swimmer whereas I'm a sprint breaststroker). I was surprised to find that I was the fastest breaststroker in South Texas.

In the summer of 1974 I started the psychiatry residency at Baylor and didn't feel like I was ready (and couldn't afford) to go to nationals, but I was pleased to be Top Ten in both SCY and LCM. In 1975 I went to my first LCM nationals at Knoxville. I've always liked LCM better because I am 5'8" and feel the taller swimmers have an advantage on the turns. The meet in Knoxville was huge and well run. It was great. I finished third in both the 100 and 200 breast. I dropped two seconds from my best time in the 100 and eight seconds from my best time in the 200 (this was my first shaved and tapered LCM meet) and I was stunned and amazed that I could "swim with the big boys."

1976 LCM nationals were in St. Louis and I was really psyched. As a second year resident I could actually swim four days a week, and I was in good shape. I finished second in the 200 and won the 100. I couldn't believe it. I was a "National Champion!" The next year I was brought down to Earth in Spokane, Wash., when, in a forty-five degree drizzle I swam against Olympian Rick Colella. In the 100 breast I was actually ahead of him at the 50, but that was my instant of glory as I watched his feet disappear in the second 50. In 1979 in Dearborn, Mich., I again finished second in the 200 and first in the 100.

The 100 was amazing. I have a film of it (not on video tape, on 8 mm film)—I'm a body length behind with 10 meter to go and won by a touch-out. In 1987, I set my first national record: 50-SCM breast (it helped that there were almost no SCM meets). 1989 found me getting my second national record: 200-SCM breast at PanPacs in Indianapolis. My best two nationals (LCM) were in 1994 and 2004 when I won all three breast events. In 2006, I was world champion, winning the 100-meter breast at Worlds in San Francisco. Back in 1988, we moved close to Portland, Ore. In Texas there were many small teams and the Masters swimming scene was fragmented. In Oregon, there was one team and they (we) were very organized. Even though our team is the whole state, the team is much more cohesive than any I had been in before, and I have really felt part of the team. Being well organized and having some really fast swimmers has meant that we have been able to have some really great relays.

I have been fortunate to have been on several national and world record relays with such super-swimmers as Robert Smith, Bert Petersen, Karen Andrus-Hughes, David Radcliff, Arlene Delmage, Tom Landis, Collette Crabbe, and Wes Edwards. What is my "secret"? I was a late bloomer. I didn't start age group until age 14. I swam my very fastest in my early 30s. I read everything I can on breaststroke and focus on techniques in every workout. I can also thank my unnaturally flexible ankles and knees (when I give demonstrations people ask, "How can you put your feet in that position?"), so I suppose my main secret was picking my parents wisely. Masters swimming has been great for me—swimming helps me to stay healthy and competition helps me to focus my swimming. I have tried to give back a little by giving clinics on breaststroke. My goal is world records in the three breaststrokes in the 100-104 age group. To do that I need to eat right, stay healthy, and keep swimming.