Kaye was long for a 12 year old, gangling, like a dancer but a bit awkward on her feet on dry ground. Dick Hannula was one of America’s great swim coaches and Tacoma had a magical 50 meter Olympic pool where Kaye and her brothers began swimming for fun and then got very serious about it.
In the 1960’s, before Title IX gender equality standards, competitive women swimmers started very young and usually retired after college. Before she was a teenager, Kaye Hall was not only swimming with and beating the boys in the Tacoma Swim Club, coach Hannula had her nationally ranked in the women’s 100 and 200m backstroke. By the time she was 15 Kaye was a seasoned international competitor and in 1967, as a student at Wilson High School, she won a silver metal in the 100m backstroke at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg Canada.
Kaye’s second place finish at the Pan Am Games was remarkable since the winner was the legendary Canadian “Mighty Mouse” Elaine Tanner, who had astonishingly won four gold and three silver medals at the Commonwealth Games the year before going on to be presented with the Lou March Trophy as Canada’s best overall athlete in 1966. In addition to beating Kaye, Tanner won another gold and three silver medals at Winnipeg. The two would meet again.
During the summer of 1968 Dick Hannula’s Tacoma Swim Club just about wore out the 50m pool at Titlow. Kaye Hall qualified for the Summer Olympics in Mexico City and it seemed like everyone in Tacoma wanted to watch her train with the club at the bottom of 6th Avenue. In early October, Kaye and the American team left for Mexico. Dick Hannula was not formally part of the U.S. delegation but went along with the Hall family anyway.
Kaye’s first event was the 4 X 100m Women’s medley held on October 17th and the Americans won narrowly over the powerful Australian team, setting an Olympic record . Kaye swam the first leg, up and back in the 50m pool, and she knew right away that something was wrong. She knew every stroke and every breath in her specialty 100m one lap distance but the magical pool at Titlow was at perfect sea level. The Olympic pool at Alberca Olímpica Francisco Márquez was at 7300 feet above sea level, the highest altitude Olympic venue in history and the lowest oxygen content. Dick Hannula had reckoned on the difference in her training but he was not the Olympic team coach and Kaye was still breathing hard when she, Catie Ball, Ellie Daniel and Susan Pedersen were presented their gold medals.
Five days later Kaye was scheduled to swim her first qualifying race in the 100m backstroke. Her lungs felt better and Dick Hannula was invited by the U.S. team to receive Olympic credentials and help bring Kaye back into focus. For the semis he asked the 17 year old to find her breath first, not swim too hard. Her time was slower that the Canadian and Australian finalists but she made it into the finals set for the next day. Elaine Tanner had qualified with a time of 1 minute 7.6 seconds, more than two full seconds faster than Kaye.
Before the race on October 23rd, coach Hannula
told Kaye to forget about altitude, oxygen or even breathing. He wanted her to just swim for a minute full out. Kaye hit the water and did just that pulling ahead of Tanner and staying there into the turn. Coming off the wall she threw her long churning arms over her head and kicked into the final 50 meters hitting the finish in a time of 1.06.2, beating Elaine Tanner by 5/100th of a second. It was a new World and Olympic record for the fastest 100m women’s backstroke in history and the second gold medal won by Kaye Hall at the 1968 Olympics. She went on to also win a bronze medal in the 200m women’s backstroke.
Kaye kept swimming with the Tacoma Swim Club and Dick Hannula as a student at the University of Puget Sound, adding three gold medals at the World University Games in Turin, Italy before retiring in 1970. She got her teaching degree from Western Washington University and became a middle school art teacher now living in Issaquah, Washington. Dick Hannula is a legend in swimming. He coached the US National Swim Team in 1973, 1975,1976,1978, 1979 and 1985. He also managed the national swim team at the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics. He still coaches the Tacoma Swim Club.
In 2011 the Olympic Pool at Titlow Beach was filled in and a well mowed lawn marks the location today. There is a spray park with no swimming pool nearby.
Thanks to Dick Hannula, Kaye Hall, Bob Hall and Sharon Styler for help with this story