After a pause of 17 years, during which wars ended, climates shifted and the world added nearly two billion wide-eyed children, we rejoin Mark Spitz. He is sprawled on a park bench near his house in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. "It does seem a long time ago," he says. "You see footage of how we used to dress, and you feel like we did when we were kids and watched a film of Jesse Owens."
This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1989 issue
The importance of touchstone events endures. But their images grow more grainy every day. In 1972, in Munich, Spitz became the most victorious athlete in Olympic history, swimming to seven gold medals—and seven world records—in seven tries. Then he retired, and the moment began to retreat, began to be overlaid—for us, for him—with fresh loves and lessons. Spitz made quick money in endorsements. He married. He took up sailing. He did commentary for ABC. He started clothing and real estate development businesses. He had a son. He practically never swam.
Now he is 39. Darkly tanned, in a striped polo shirt, shorts and running shoes, he looks a healthy 35. When he talks about how training for seven events compromised his speed in his best race, the 100-meter butterfly, he suddenly seems about 30.
Spitz no longer wears the mustache that sold a million posters. His face is familiar but more open. When he talks about his butterfly stroke, about how his large palms still effectively seek out undisturbed water, he seems 25.
And when he talks about why he believes he can make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the 100 fly and go on to win in Barcelona, when he'll be 42, he seems 16, though perhaps a sweeter 16 than he was the first time around. "I feel like a toy that's been left in the closet, and now I've been taken out and wound up," he says. "It's nice. It's weird. I actually get to premeditate something."
There was little in the way of forethought when in 1958, at age eight, Spitz began tearing up the YMCA pool in Sacramento. "Isn't it the way with most successes," he says, "that things just fit together to get you started, and you carry on to the limit?"
As a child, Spitz was propelled by an explosive mix of talent and parental ambition. In 1970, his father, Arnold, was quoted as saying, "Swimming isn't everything, winning is.... I never said to him, 'You're second, that's great.' I told him I didn't care about winning age groups, I care for world records."
If Arnold was willing to drive Mark, Mark was eager to be driven. "Only twice did my parents' judgment really influence my career," he says. "When I was nine, they took me from the YMCA to Coach Sherm Chavoor at the Arden Hills Swim Club. Then when I was 14 and we'd moved to Walnut Creek, they took me to George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club. Both times I said, 'Hey, great idea,' and bit off the challenge. But I couldn't know what I was getting into. Once I was at Santa Clara, though, my parents were less of a factor. George Haines was the one bringing me to fruition."
It was a two-pronged struggle. At 16, Spitz was often insufferably confident of his own gifts. Thrown in with an older generation of Santa Clara swimmers dominated by Don Schollander, who had won a record four golds in the 1964 Olympics, Spitz found he could emulate them, and sometimes beat them, but he could not be accepted by them.
"I learned head games from Schollander," Spitz says. "I learned to walk the pool deck with an arrogant aura." This did not endear him to his teammates. Bright in things mechanical and mathematical but inept in language, Spitz was an easy mark for ridicule. Unable to disguise his ego, he was thought conceited. Spitz's reaction was to harden his heart and answer his critics with his performance.
In 1967, Spitz set several world records. The next year Haines believed that Spitz, then 18, was capable of winning six golds in the Mexico City Olympics. Spitz believed that too. Yet he won only two, both in relays, and had the galling experience of hearing his Santa Clara teammates cheering for his American opponents. This was the reward of great expectations: Two Olympic gold medals seemed like failure.
Then Spitz got a break. He went off to Indiana University. Before he arrived, coach James E. (Doc) Counsilman called his team together and asked his swimmers to judge Spitz on his behavior, not his reputation. "When he came, his self-image was pretty low, and he didn't feel competent socially," Counsilman says. "We had to restore his confidence. But it was easy. Everybody liked him. Eventually he was elected co-captain."
Spitz says that Counsilman made him "more friendly."
"Mark was a very private person," says Counsilman. "At the same time, he was very direct. His candor was such that it was almost naivetè. And he'd been burned by that. When he was relaxed, he was one of the boys, but if a reporter came in, he'd clam up and be a different person. Of course he's long since mellowed, as he's become secure."
At last comfortable with his team, Spitz prepared for 1972 with ferocious purpose. "In swimming, my aggressiveness wasn't always visible," he says. "You couldn't see my face in the water."
But you could see the records falling. "My talent was that I never died [at the end of a race]," says Spitz. "The problem was in getting out fast enough. That was due to training for a lot of events."
He struck the ideal balance, of course, in Munich. He won the 200 free and the 100 fly and the 200 fly. Strong teammates helped him to golds in the 4 X 100 and 4 X 200 freestyle relays and the 4 X 100 medley relay. Only one event figured to be close, the 100 free against a field that included Jerry Heidenreich of Dallas.
Spitz, for a time, didn't want to swim that race. Always a great prerace worrier, he complained of a sore back and talked of withdrawing. On the pool deck minutes before the race, he said to ABC's Donna de Varona, "I know I say I don't want to swim before every event but this time I'm serious. If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure." Spitz won by half a stroke in a world-record 51.22. Perfection was preserved.
The night after his last race, while Spitz slept, Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic Village, killed two Israelis and took nine more hostages, who later were murdered. U.S. officials thought that Spitz, who is Jewish, might be a target and rushed him back home.
He went right into a life of commercials and appearances for companies like Schick and Arena swimwear and for the West Coast milk industry. In the ensuing year, as the poster of Spitz decked out in his star-spangled Olympic swim-suit and his seven golds became omnipresent, Spitz didn't exactly alienate the public, but neither did he charm it. "Did athletics prepare me to live in society?" he says. "No, because athletics is selfish. Coaches and parents are a support group for your performance. When you go to work, suddenly you're alone and you have to be a better communicator. I wasn't prepared to do that."
He needed time for his relaxed self to soften his competitive self. Instead, he came across as one-dimensional, fixated on reducing everything to winning. Gradually, sponsors lost interest. By then he was comfortably set for life, yet the shape of that life was unclear.
"What would I do differently?" he says. "I'd be more decisive. I would commit to something wholly. In business, where I divided my time among family, friends and agents, I compromised. I played it safe."
He leaves the impression he was adrift, compassless. But Spitz's last 17 years have hardly been wasted. In 1973 he married Suzy Weiner. Their son, Matthew, is now eight, and swimming is about his fifth favorite sport, which is fine with Mark. Mark's businesses have kept his family prosperous. He has good friends, to whom he is loyal. The only thing lacking, one feels, is something difficult, taxing.
After he cut himself off from swimming, in 1972, Spitz says, he experienced no regrets: "I left the Olympics at the top of the sport with not a thing left undone. I've never even had a desire to try masters' swimming. Whenever getting back in the pool was mentioned, I'd say, 'Why mess with history?' "
In the last several months, however, Spitz found the subject bobbing up insistently. "I bumped into Lance Larson [who was second in the 1960 Olympic 100 free] and he said he was swimming masters and was going faster now than he did in the '60s, though in different events. He told me a lot of guys were."
Then Mark Wallace, an old friend who was student manager of the Indiana swim team, pointed out to Spitz that record times had dropped dramatically in every event—except the 100 fly. Spitz's Munich best was 54.27. The present world record of 52.84 was set by Pablo Morales in 1986.
In April, Spitz took his son to play basketball at a West L.A. recreation center and noticed a flurry of activity in the swimming pool. "Guys my age and younger," Spitz says. "Five or six to a lane. They looked good. The coach said they were swimming fast and encouraged me to get in."
Spitz edged away from that pool, but he talked again with Wallace, saying, "I'm getting the idea here that I can do an hour a day and be competitive in the 100 fly."
"Well, what are you going to do?" asked Wallace.
"Exactly what I just did," said Spitz. "Just talking."
Shades of the 1972 100 freestyle. It seems the more heroic the attempt, the more Spitz must be cajoled.
Then, at a Jewish Sports Hall of Fame dinner in Irvine, Calif., in June, Spitz asked Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan, "Do you think I'm nuts? I think there's a chance I can swim at the speed I swam in Munich."
Greenspan just about choked. "Don't talk to anybody!" he said. "I want to film this. Don't do anything until we talk."
They met a week later. Greenspan told Spitz that the oldest athlete ever to medal in Olympic swimming was Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku, second in the 100 free in 1924, at age 33. Which meant there was no precedent for what Spitz was contemplating. "You'd gain a lot of credibility if you even made it to the Olympics," said Greenspan.
"But what about my reputation?" asked Spitz.
"Your place in history is secure," said Greenspan. "This is the challenge of a lifetime."
"You know," said Spitz, coming to a decision, "you're right."
Spitz polled his family. "My father, my father-in-law and my wife thought it was ridiculous," he says, grinning. "They also think it's wonderful."
"He would love that moment of glory again, one more time," says Arnold. "I told him he still has the mentality. Dealing with what will be, in 1992, a 42-year-old body is the problem."
At first there was some question about whether Spitz would be allowed to race. The money he took for endorsements made him ineligible under 1972 rules, because he was no longer an amateur. But the rules have changed, so U.S. Swimming, the governing body for the sport in this country, issued him a competitor's card.
There are three reasons why Spitz's aspirations are not absurd. One, he has maintained his speed, or at least he had through 1984. Shortly before Rowdy Gaines won the '84 Olympic 100-meter freestyle, Spitz, then 34, defeated him in three of five practice 50 frees. "I was faster than ever because I was just naturally stronger than I was at 22," says Spitz. "Looking at my frame at 22, I think I may have retired prematurely."
Two, to prepare for one event—the 100 fly—Spitz will have to train about half as much as he did for his slate of seven in 1972.
And, three, he may have an anatomical advantage. Because his knees hyper-extend, he gets incredible depth and leverage when he does a butterfly kick.
Last month Spitz went to UCLA coach Ron Ballatore, who blended Spitz right into the UCLA team workouts. "Amazingly, I wasn't Tail-end Charlie," says Spitz. "We did a 500-meter kick and I fell behind, but after 300 we switched to fly kick and all of a sudden I caught up and finished with the group. I was inspired."
He wasn't the only one. "He still has great technique in butterfly and freestyle," says Ballatore. "He rides so well in the water. He's only 10 pounds heavier than in 1972. The thing to do first is get him into aerobic condition without getting him hurt. He won't need to do all the volume the team does. If we swim 20 100's, he'll skip every fifth one. It will be interesting to see how he responds."
If Spitz trains through the autumn and tapers with the team as he plans, his first races are some months away. But on just his second day back in training with a bunch of college kids he is clearly a man in his element. Only goggles, which were outlawed when he raced, are unfamiliar. As Spitz makes a butterfly turn, Ballatore calls out, "O.K., Mark, touch with both hands."
"Hey, Coach," comes the voice back across the water, "I've never done an honest turn in a workout, ever."
"See," yells one of the varsity swimmers, "he does it too."
The scene seems extraordinary. Could a runner, say a miler, laze around for 17 years and hop into a top college interval workout? Hardly. He would probably stagger into the infield and throw up after his first quarter. Swimmers are mysteriously different, and the most eerily so is Spitz.
"He never drank or smoked, and he watches his health to the point of hypochondria," says Counsilman. "But if he gets faster than he was in 1972, it will be phenomenal."
But not impossible. "A lot of masters swimmers do beat their old bests, but it's usually those who didn't train properly as kids," adds Counsilman. "Modern weight training gets them stronger, and better stroke mechanics let them go faster. At 22, even Mark was just starting to get strong. He was still improving. It's an old wives' tale that swimmers mature early. I think they can get better into their 30's, but they can't make a living in swimming, so there is no incentive to continue the way runners do."
Spitz has been moved by the positive response that his comeback has prompted. A little puzzled by it too. He says, "Maybe I'm representing all those couch potatoes who say, 'I should get off my butt and lose 10 pounds.' "
"Everyone our age is so excited," says Wallace. "It is a vicarious recapturing of youth. It's baby boomers declaring we're not going to be swept away by 17-year-old punk rockers."
Spitz's 54.27 of 1972 would have placed him sixth in last year's nationals and eighth at the Seoul Olympics, but Ballatore believes it will take a race in the low 53-second range to make the '92 team. Imagining what it would be like to actually reach Barcelona, Spitz gets wound up. "I'll be almost twice as old as the guys in the other lanes," he says. "It's so damn unique. It'd be a feat beyond the seven gold medals."
Does this sound like a man who had to be talked into returning? "Maybe I was missing something," he says when pressed. "I got myself involved in those conversations that pushed me back in the pool. Maybe my ego was so polished that I couldn't admit to myself that I wasn't content."
Of course there is another side to all this wild premeditation. Spitz may put in three years of hard work and not make the Olympics. "And it's not like being 18 and saying, 'Well, next year I'll be stronger,' " he says. "Time is not on my side."
Then he says something he wouldn't have said when he was 18. "Three years from now, it will have been worth it. Even if I lose. Because I will have made the attempt."
It takes a moment to dawn. Spitz is finally a true Olympian, after all these years.