Mark Spitz's well-advertised head of hair, the promotional point of his match race with Tom Jager last Saturday, held up perfectly. After 50 meters of chlorine, it was still jet black, proving that you certainly can fool Mother Nature. It's been almost 19 years since Spitz's last race? Can't be! His hair has gone gray? No way! In a swimsuit, arms akimbo, Spitz can still evoke that famous poster of 1972, that uneasy mix of arrogance and excellence, that sheer youth. All that's missing are the seven Olympic gold medals hung around his neck—and the mustache, which, when it began sprouting gray a few years ago, he chose to submit to the blade instead of artificial color.
But since he finished that 50-meter butterfly race in Mission Viejo, Calif., more than a length and a half behind the 26-year-old Jager, there was some question as to how Spitz, 41 years old after all, has fared with Father Time. The closet gray-beard got off to a slow start, seemed to drop anchor after 25 meters and touched in 26.70, well off Jager's effortless 24.92 and nowhere near the high 25's needed to give his comeback Olympic credibility. Maybe the image you'll have to remember from this race is Spitz staring up in total disbelief at the clock, as if somehow hoping to turn it back.
And yet Spitz's improbable return to his sport, his attempt to become one of the two U.S. swimmers to qualify for the 1992 Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly, still can't be dismissed. Clairol Option, the men's hair color that bankrolled this event, giving $20,000 to the winner and $10,000 to the loser, plans to go ahead with a second race: Spitz versus Matt Biondi at 50 meters on April 27, also in Mission Viejo, this time with a $35,000-$15,000 prize-money split. Had Spitz lost by more than three seconds—a defeat so great it could only be caused by something along the lines of a shark attack—ABC's Wide World of Sports, which is televising both events, could have bailed out of the Biondi showdown. So contractually, Spitz remains alive.
But more important, he is alive emotionally. After the race Spitz was more baffled than discouraged. "I can say, unequivocably, I went one second better on three different occasions last week," he said, his retouched hair barely dry. "I thought I could expect to do a half-second faster, do 25-low. That's the one thing I wasn't prepared to do, to swim so slow."
April 21, 1991
Anybody who saw him before this race, though, might not have been so surprised. Over the years Spitz's fabled cockiness has transformed into a strange welter of middle-age doubt. "Ordinarily, Mark is a very, uh, promotional guy, thinking of his answers and how they'll play," said broadcaster Donna de Varona, a longtime Spitz watcher. "But when I interviewed him right before the race, he was more emotional than I've ever seen him. His voice cracked. I thought he was going to cry."
The undertow of emotion caught Spitz off guard. "It's a weird feeling, not to be able to put it together, not to be able to control my nerves," he said. "But, I guess this is like a first piano recital. You've just got to do it."
At that, the 50 butterfly is probably more like a piano recital than it is like an Olympic qualifier. No matter how well you perform, the 50 fly can't get you on the U.S. team because it's not an Olympic event. A time of 25.38 might have been nice for purposes of comparison—that's how fast Spitz swam the first lap en route to his gold medal in the 100 butterfly in 1972—but this race was strictly a made-for-TV sprint. As broadcaster John Naber, himself a former Olympic star, put it, "It is like Carl Lewis versus Jim Brown in the 20-yard dash. It's fun to watch, but it doesn't prove anything."
Spitz, who dreamed up the format of the two-race exhibition and even chose his opponents, protested that it was more than a stunt. His time against Jager in the 50, he said, would tell him where he stood relative to the current standards in the 100 fly—notably Pablo Morales's world record (52.84) and Brian Alderman's best time by an American this year (53.38). When Alderman set his mark two weeks ago, he went out in 25.2, which is what Spitz was hoping to do in his 50. "That would prove I can go out with the group," he said. "The next question would be, Can I come back with them?"
Another advantage of the 50, Spitz acknowledged, was that it would preclude utter humiliation at a fragile point in his floundering 1½-year comeback. "At that distance, it will be over like that," he said before the race. "Somebody will win by a stroke or two. Nobody's going to be embarrassed."
Spitz honestly thought he would win by a stroke or two. When he took time off from his most recent enterprise—refurbishing Beverly Hills mansions—to start training again, he did so with full confidence that he could chase down young guns like Jager, the world-record holder in the 50-meter freestyle, and Biondi, a quintuple gold medal winner at the 1988 Olympics. In the days before last week's race, Spitz imagined himself overtaking Jager at 25 meters and soaring ahead as Jager's stroke came apart.
Well, why not? Spitz's marvelous stroke was still intact, after all. Last September, officials at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs had Spitz do the butterfly in the complex's flume, a kind of swimming treadmill that's used for evaluating technique, and stood back in awe. His stroke was not as powerful as those of his younger rivals, but it was technically more efficient than any the researchers had tested. Said Jager facetiously, "It's a good thing we bought a flume—at $1 million, by the way—to tell us Mark Spitz has a perfect stroke."
Spitz chose to attempt his comeback in the 100 fly because it was his strongest Olympic event and because the times haven't come down that far in it since his 54.27 clocking in Munich. "Either my time was way out there back in 1972 or the event hasn't gotten the same coaching as others," he says. But even in the 100 fly, time has not stood still. Starts are better coached these days. "Back then, starts weren't that important," says Jager. "You got into the water and swam. Now everything is much more athletic." Jager has made a science of getting out of the blocks quicker than anybody else. No longer a competitive butterflyer, Jager used an explosive start to come out of the water three feet ahead of Spitz. It was all he needed.
After the race, Spitz said, "I have a long road to go." Indeed. To qualify for the Olympic trials, he will have to swim 55:59 in the 100 fly sometime before Feb. 24, 1992. Perhaps it was good to have this first race done with. Perhaps he won't be a nervous wreck the next time. "I'll tell you how I feel," he said. "Like in the 200-meter in Mexico [in the 1968 Olympics] when I qualified first and finished dead last." Good things came after that, didn't they? Then, almost as a promise, he said, "Old swimmers never die, they just keep taking more strokes."