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by Frank Litsky

July 19, 2000

Gentle giant who revolutionized backstroke

Allen Stack, a shy, gentle giant from Yale who won a gold medal in swimming in the 1948 Olympics, and revolutionized the backstroke, died last Sunday in his home in Honolulu. He was 71.

He had suffered from bone cancer for more than a year, said his wife, Elizabeth. The illness prevented him from attending last October's ceremonies in New Haven for the 100th anniversary of Yale swimming.

"It broke his heart," she said.

From 1948 to 1951, during and after his college days, Stack broke 6 world records in the backstroke and 22 American ones.

At 6 feet 5 inches and 215 pounds, Stack was bigger than most other backstrokers. His stroke was long, looping and seemingly effortless. It was also different, as 85-year-old Phil Moriarty recalled, Friday from his home in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Moriarty was an assistant to the legendary Yale coach, Bob Kiphuth, at the time. "Allen had a unique stroke," he said. He would put his arm in the water and pull through like a normal backstroker, but as he brought the arm to his side he would bend it a little at the elbow and push with his hands toward his feet.

"That created practically a brand new stroke. Allen's bend and his push are what everyone is doing today. It's the logical way to go."

In the 100-meter backstroke, Stack won gold medals in the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires. He also won 10 national championships. He entered the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1979.

Allen MacIntyre Stack was born Jan. 23, 1928, in New Haven. He graduated from Yale in 1949, spent 1951 to 1954 in the Navy and graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1956. He moved to Honolulu and practiced law there until last year.

After the 1952 Olympics, he married Elizabeth Loy Marks of Honolulu. He is survived by his wife; a son, Allen Jr. of Honolulu, and two daughters, Tiare of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Lee of Honolulu.

His two Olympics were marked by startling moments. As a friend and former Yale swimmer, Everett MacLeman of Guilford, Conn., recalled:

"Seconds before the starting gun in the 1948 final, he was in the water and pulled up his trunks. The cord broke and the trunks started to slip off. He hollered to the starter, who let him get out of the water and into new trunks that stayed up, and he became Yale's first-ever Olympic gold medal swimmer."

In 1952, Stack tried to retain his Olympic title, but just before the event he fell off a motor scooter. Swimming with a bandaged hand, he finished fourth.

"He wrote me that he hurt his hand on a turn," his wife remembered. "I thought it was a swimming turn, not a motor-scooter turn."

Obituary New York Times, Sunday, September 19, 1999.



  • Olympians