Swimmers have always been inhospitable to hair, accepting on faith the dogma that anybody who shears himself from head to toe before a big race will slip through water like ball bearings over oil. Now comes Mark Spitz (opposite), the world's leading swimmer, sowing doubt. Not even so major a competition as last week's U.S. Olympic Trials in Chicago could induce Spitz to part with his mustache, which he affected, he said forthrightly, "Because it looks pretty good on me." Spitz offered a further explanation over lunch in the revolving restaurant atop the Regency Hyatt, a futuristic hotel with a facade of roughly the same burnished-copper hue as his own rakish features. "The mustache also helps my swimming," he insisted. "It catches the water and keeps it out of my mouth."
It no doubt speaks more for his talent than for his grasp of hydrodynamics, but Spitz performed at the trials as if his rivals were so many barbers in pursuit. On four successive nights he plunged into the Portage Park pool, a municipally-owned facility in a blue-collar neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side, and four times he climbed out a winner, mustache wet and bristling. He broke two of the three individual world records he already held and added a fourth. Counting relays, he qualified for seven events at Munich, a burden that unavoidably invited comparison with 1968. In that Olympic year, a gifted but inexperienced Mark Spitz brashly predicted he would win six gold medals in Mexico City, then settled for a comparatively meager haul of two golds (both in relays), a silver and a bronze.
Now 22 and bound for Indiana University's dental school, Spitz has ripened into the sport's most dashing figure. Neither blond nor bland, as swimmers are so often stereotyped, but looking like a Jewish incarnation of—you should pardon the expression—Omar Sharif, he was set upon at Portage Park by swarms of teeny-swimmers, few of them old enough to borrow the family station wagon. He was also besieged by reporters loaded with here-we-go-again questions about how he would fare in Munich. "I'll just try to do the best I can," he answered during one such encounter, his upper lip as stiff as it was luxuriant. Then he headed for the exit, only to meet the usual pack of squealing girls. "You know," he complained as he paused to sign an autograph, "my head's under a lot of pressure."
The trials produced, in all, 12 world records, and the 51 member team includes other celebrated veterans who will be feeling some of the same pressure as Spitz. Among the men, for example, there is Spitz' co-captain last season at Indiana, versatile Gary Hall, a silver medalist at Mexico City who qualified in Chicago for three events, improving his own world mark in the 400-meter individual medley (4:30.81) and tying Gunnar Larsson's 200-meter medley record (2:09.3). Then there were those who might not be able to grow a mustache if they tried, younger fellows like 16-year-old Rick DeMont, a sudden sensation in the 1,500, who convincingly overpowered Mike Burton and John Kinsella, who placed one-two in Mexico City.
August 13, 1972
The results at Portage Park pointed to another strong Olympic showing by American men, and there was reason to be optimistic that the women might do better than previously expected, too. Hope was kindled by a wave of talented youngsters utterly unawed by Australia's Shane Gould, who held every world freestyle record before the U.S. women went to work. Led by a couple of 15-year-old schoolgirls, Shirley Babashoff and Jo Harshbarger, the women shattered two of Shane's records and left two others tottering precariously, an affront witnessed by Gould's coach, Forbes Carlile. Stopping off en route to Munich to cover the U.S. trials for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, Carlile admitted to being "apprehensive," then added with a coy smile, "Of course, it's not unreasonable to assume that Shane will be improved in Munich, too."
The assault on the record book began, suitably, with Spitz, winner of last year's Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. No sooner did Mark arrive in Chicago, birthplace of Johnny Weissmuller, than he started making like the latter's spiritual descendant by twice smashing the 200-meter butterfly record of West Germany's Hans Fassnacht—first in a preliminary and then with a 2:01.53 clocking in the evening final. (Spiritual in the record-breaking sense, that is; the butterfly wasn't invented when Weissmuller swam.) Bigger things were almost sure to follow, since Spitz has always enjoyed the 200 butterfly less than his three other specialties. By no coincidence, this is also the event that requires the hardest work—something that has not always been Spitz' forte.
"I sometimes just go through the motions at workouts," he admitted, "but that's usually because I want the coach to baby me that day or something." After Fassnacht's record fell, Spitz rushed up to Sherm Chavoor, his coach at Sacramento's Arden Hills Swim Club, and said, "Well, I guess I accomplished something this summer after all." Chavoor laughed. "You accomplished a good suntan, Buster," he said. "Just think how much better you might have done if you'd have worked."
Spitz next won the 200 freestyle with a clocking just eight one-hundredths of a second above his world record of 1:53.5, then lowered his marks in both the 100 butterfly (to 54.56) and 100 freestyle (51.47). In the 200 freestyle, the only event in which he failed to reward the crowd's chant of "Go! Go! Go!" with a world record, Spitz lifted his head out of the water for a couple of look-sees, his curiosity disrupting his rhythm. If Spitz sometimes seemed to be playing in the pool, he was equally sportive when he and Steve Genter, a UCLA senior who joined him on the Olympic squad in the 200 freestyle—three finishers were selected in almost every event—faced the press.
The fast-improving Genter, who qualified in the 400 freestyle as well, was distinguishable from Spitz as the gangly one who had shaved not only his face but his entire head. He also commanded attention for his well-choreographed sequence of shakes and shimmies on the starting block, a devil's dance meant to please the crowd, relax himself and, if possible, unnerve the opposition. "I'm hyperkinetic," Genter explained, tossing a huge grin Spitz' way. When asked whether his rival's manic prerace routine bothered him, it was Spitz' turn to laugh. "At least I've got some hair," he said, reaching over and pinching Genter's exposed scalp. "Hey, doesn't that hurt?" he asked. Genter grinned again.
But if Spitz sometimes acted cavalier in public, he seemed in need of reassurance as he and Chavoor drove off for dinner later that evening. "Was it clear-cut that I won?" he demanded from the back seat, suffusing the interior of the car with dark clouds of anxiety. A moment later he asked, "How many times did I look around?" Then: "Do you think Genter will improve when we get to Munich?" By the time he reached the restaurant, Spitz had regained his sense of self. "I felt great in the pool tonight," he said. "At 125 meters I looked over and I saw nobody. I had clear water. I wondered where they all were. That's why I looked around. I probably lost two-tenths of a second."
His performance at Portage Park raised to 28 the number of occasions on which Spitz has broken world records, and he allowed that "30 would be a nice round number" to shoot for. His heroics came at the expense of, among others, Frank Heckl, the 6'5½" Californian who won six gold medals at last year's Pan-American Games. An article recently appeared about Heckl entitled The Olympic Swimmer Who Hates to Swim, a headline that proved wrong on two counts. First, complaining that "I haven't felt right all week," Heckl failed in three of the four events won by Spitz, which meant he is not an Olympic swimmer. Nor did he sound like a man who hates to swim. After finishing behind Spitz and six others in the 100 freestyle, his last try at qualifying for Munich, Heckl, who will enroll in Southern Cal's medical school next month, strode off to console his tearful wife Betty. "I'm going to miss this sport tomorrow morning," he said.
Other casualties included Chet Jastremski, who flopped in his comeback attempt at 31 (SI, June 26), although he did better some of the clockings he achieved as the world's best breaststroker a decade ago, and 1970 Sullivan Award winner John Kinsella, who finished with nothing more than a place on the 800 freestyle relay. Kinsella, swimming before a hometown crowd, came to grief first in the 400 as did his old distance rival Mike Burton and 18-year-old Kurt Krumpholz, a UCLA water-polo star whose fortunes at Portage Park rose and fell like a Canadian mining stock. The unheralded Krumpholz broke Australian Brad Cooper's 400 record with a 4:00.11 swim in a morning heat. The record was not bettered in the finals, but Krumpholz finished sixth—too low to make the team—behind onetime record-holder Tom McBreen, young Rick DeMont and the clean-domed Genter.
It developed that DeMont, a high school senior from San Rafael, Calif., was just warming up for the 1,500. Back home in Marin County he has delved into the medieval sport of falconry, trapping falcons in the woods and training them to hunt sparrows. "It's kind of neat when one of your birds zaps something," DeMont said. He showed that his love of the chase extended to the 1,500. With a measured stroke that hinted of power in reserve, he let Burton and Kinsella play awhile out front and then, at 600 meters, did some zapping of his own. Easing ahead and gradually building his lead, he touched out in 15:52.91, more than four seconds faster than Kinsella's world record, and considerably in front of 17-year-old Doug Northway, a wispy 125-pounder from Tucson, and the 25-year-old Burton.
Burton, a gold medalist in the 400 and the 1,500 in Mexico, has swum in pain throughout his career because of a leg injury suffered in a bicycle accident at 13, but his courage was never more evident than now. All but discounted before the race—he himself admitted, "These young boys are passing me up"—he wept joyfully at having grabbed the third spot in the 1,500. The brawny Kinsella, far back in sixth, kept his tears within. "I just blew it," he said, blinking behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "I'll try my best in the relay."
Other than DeMont and John Hencken, an 18-year-old breaststroker whose 2:22.79 in the 200 meters broke veteran Brian Job's world record—Job also made the team—the brightest new faces belonged to the girls. From the women's team that amassed 11 of 14 gold medals in '68, only individual medleyist Lynn Vidali (who qualified in three events), butterflyer Ellie Daniel and freestyler Jane Barkman return. To appreciate the pace of change in women's swimming, it helps to recall the time two years ago when a photographer by chance asked Shirley Babashoff, then an awkward 13, to pose at a meet with Debbie Meyer, who had taken three freestyle golds in Mexico. Finding herself in the presence of so formidable a personage, Babashoff retreated into unpenetrable silence. "I just didn't know what to say to Debbie," she said.
At Portage Park last week it was the retired Debbie Meyer's turn to be impressed. Now 20 and bound for UCLA, she has been assisting Chavoor in Sacramento and was at poolside with stopwatch in hand and, like nearly everyone else, Shane Gould in mind. "These American girls are going to give Shane a run for her money," Debbie said. Most of the team's women freestylers qualified at just one distance, meaning that well-rested Americans will be challenging the Australian in every swim.
One who will face her in the first three freestyle events is Babashoff, a leggy steelworker's daughter whose surname and blonde, apple-pie good looks seemed very much in place in Portage Park, a neighborhood whose population is largely of recent European extraction. Babashoff's grandparents fled Czarist Russia because they were Molokans, a persecuted Protestant sect that, like Jews and Moslems, take literally the Biblical injunction against eating pork and shellfish. The family still follows the faith, and when Shirley, quickly developing into a world-class swimmer, journeyed to Europe last summer with a U.S. team, she refused to eat any of the various pork dishes put before the swimmers. "It worked out fine," she says. "They always brought me steak instead."
After her return to California, Babashoff continued to show progress in the pool. As, day after day, she propelled her 5'9½" frame through the water at the Huntington Beach Aquatic Club, her coach, Flip Darr, called out Gould's accursed name in a loud whisper. By coincidence, Babashoff uses, as does Gould, a slow, shallow two-beat kick that is common enough among distance swimmers (which both are) but is seldom seen among top sprinters (which both are, too).
Babashoffs productive week in Chicago began when she finished second in the 100 freestyle to 17-year-old Jennifer Kemp, a brunette from Cincinnati who wears hooped rings in her pierced ears except during big races. Almost as tall as Babashoff, she has become a top freestyler in a hurry, having switched from the backstroke just a year ago at the suggestion of her coach, Paul Bergen. "When you swim backstroke you can see all your friends in the stands making faces at you," she says.
Watching the bottom of the pool for a change, Kemp broke the minute mark for the 100 only last month, and her rapid improvement could scarcely have been more timely. Off to a flawless start at the Portage Park pool, and moving powerfully with a classic sprinter's six-beat kick, she outraced Babashoff and the third Olympic qualifier, Sandy Neil-son, a dimple-cheeked 16-year-old, to hit the wall in 58.63, the second fastest 100 ever behind Gould's 58.5.
Back at the motel that night, the winner's parents broke out the champagne, offering their daughter a glass, too. Jennifer, the youngest of six children, declined. "The coach has his little drinking rule, you know," she reminded her folks, then wet off to celebrate with friends over cole slaw and root beer.
Babashoff had her best race in the 200 (2:05.21), the first of Shane's world records to fall. She led all the way, finishing well in front of two other 15-year-olds, Keena Rothhammer and Ann Marshall, and then shrugged. "It was a surprise that I broke the record, because it felt real easy," she said. Rothhammer, one of nine Munich-bound swimmers developed by George Haines, the perennially successful coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club, earlier had won the 400 with a time less than a second off Gould's 4:21.2. Keena was joined on the winner's platform by Babashoff, who took second, and Santa Clara teammate Jennifer Wylie, all freckles and frowns and, at 14, the youngest Olympic swimmer. Keena also tied for cute-name honors with Deena Deardruff, who won the 100-meter butterfly—backstroker Barby Darby, regrettably, did not make the team—even if the origins of Keena are obscure. "My mother says it's Hawaiian," she confided. "She says she heard it on the radio."
Babashoff failed to make it in the 800, finishing fifth, but there was Jo Harshbarger, a compact, 5'3" native of Bellevue, Wash., who will turn 16 in November, a week before Shane Gould does. Harshbarger works out 12 miles a day in a saltwater pool; her agonies paid off as her superb conditioning helped her through the 800 in 8:53.83, more than four seconds quicker than Gould's world record.
Having done damage to Gould from a distance in Chicago, Harshbarger and the other freestylers actually seemed eager to get a closer shot at her in Munich. "Shane's going to get beat one of these days," Jennifer Kemp predicted the morning following her triumph in the 100. "I think maybe I can do it." Nobody was more optimistic than Babashoff, who was confident she could handle her busy Olympic program. "I wouldn't want a day off, because then you run around and stuff and get tired," she said.
Despite all the rampant optimism, Mark Spitz, for one, feared a possibly less happy fate for the American women. "They may wind up doing a real hurt dance behind Shane," he said. As for himself, his experience four years ago made Spitz reluctant to issue predictions one way or another. "I'm the greatest this week," he said, delivering himself of an Ali-style pronouncement before yet another throng of newsmen. "If this meet was only called the Olympics...." His voice trailed off and a smile flickered briefly beneath his mustache. With a small shrug, Spitz added, "But it's not."