How I Came to Appreciate Mark Spitz – Part 3: Spitz, Burton and a Cute Redhead


It’s a little known fact that Mark Spitz was considered to be a world class long distance freestyler as well as a butterflier.  In the summer of 1966 the AAU Long Course National Championships were held at Lincoln, NE.  I happened to be free that August, having resigned as coach of the Redding Swim Club, so I decided to go to Nebraska.

In those days you didn’t have to pass any courses to be a timer at Nationals.  Interested in timing at Lincoln, I contacted some friends of mine who were veteran swim meet timers in the Pacific Association (one year they timed 54 swim meets).

They got me in contact with the Pacific AssociationAAU, and I was immediately accredited to time in Lincoln.  I did have a white shirt, and that was all I needed.

I was assigned to lane 3.  We used huge Bulova mechanical watches, at least an inch thick and about four inches in diameter.  We were also placed on a platform about ten feet above the edge of the pool. Looking down we could see clearly any finish.  We could also watch the races as the swimmers swam away from us and back.  The best seats in the pool.

One of the other facets of the meet was that a wind usually came up in the evening during the finals.  This affected the swimmers because their splits were definitely slower going into the wind, especially in breaststroke.  And our timing slips were picked up for each heat by a cute, 6 year old redhead named Barbara Harris (yes, the Barb Harris who lives in Bend).  Her father was another timer somewhere on the platform.

During the meet the focus was not on Sptiz (he was still only 16), but on how the meet would set up swimmers for the Mexico City Olympics, at 7000 feet altitude.  The strongest team, of course, was Santa Clara with Greg Buckingham, Don Schollander and Claudia Colb who would be major swimmers in Mexico.

One of the big races everyone was looking ahead to was the 1500 meters.  Steve Krause from Washington State had recently broken the magic 17:00 minute time for the event.  He was the big favorite.  Mark Spitz was also in the final heat.  So was a relatively unknown swimmer from Arden Hills Swim Club of Sacramento, Mike Burton.

In the officials’ meeting before the meet Steve Krause’s coach had made a big stink about some turn boards at the end of the pool.  The head of the AAU, whose name I don’t remember, shot the coach down thoroughly at the meeting.  It didn’t make a difference in the 1500.

Mike Burton took the 1500 out at a ferocious pace.  He was ahead of everyone by at least five body lengths at the half way point, only six tenths slower than the world record for 800 meters.  All of the timers were saying, “Who is that?”  I knew, having been at Arden Hills so many times.

Burton won in 16:41.6, breaking the old record by 17 seconds and obliterating the field.  I don’t know where Spitz finished, but I know it was the last 1500 he ever swam.  It should be noted that Spitz did win the 100 fly in Nebraska, but Swimming World in October, showed Burton and Claudia Colb on the cover, not Spitz.

After that, Mark Spitz became one of the big favorites for Mexico City, but he had a poor meet there.  He won only two golds, both in relays, and was 8th in the 200 fly, supposedly his best event, and third in the 100 free.  Though favored, he was second in the 100 fly, beaten by Doug Russell, a major disappointment for Spitz.

It was after the 1968 Olympics, that Spitz went to Indiana University, left Santa Clara Swim Club, and eventually came back to Sacramento, where he had started his swimming careerat the Arden Hills Swim Club under ShermChavoor.  But first he had a return engagement with Doug Russell at the 1969 NCAA Championships in Salt Lake City.

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