Most of us remember that Mark Spitz won seven gold medals with seven world records at the 1972 Munich Olympics. What most don’t know is that Spitz almost did not swim his first event, the 200 butterfly.
After the Mexico City Olympics four years earlier when he finished last in the final of the 200 fly, he hated the event. He didn’t swim it in college. Even when he decided to go for the Munich Games, he didn’t want to swim the 200 fly, which would be the first of seven swims.
Spitz, however, had committed to Munich and had returned to Sacramento and Arden Hills Swim Club, coached by Sherm Chavoor, to train for the Olympics. This is all told in Chavoor’s book, “The Fifty Meter Jungle,” a most aptly named book for swimming at the Olympic level.
Chavoor was subtle. He didn’t argue with Spitz about the 200 fly. He merely had workouts where everyone, Spitz, Mike Burton and the rest, swam repeat 200 flies long course. Eventually Spitz came around, and said that he would swim the 200 fly at the Santa Clara meet that summer and consider it for Munich if he hit a certain time. Of course, Spitz did so, and the rest is history.
After Munich Spitz had a dilemma. He had always said he wanted to be a dentist, but Hollywood and personal appearances beckoned. He appeared on TV with Bob Hope and other celebrities, and it quickly became apparent that his water performances were better. However, it has been estimated that Spitz made over $7 million dollars after 1972, through public appearances and advertisements. His poster alone with all of the gold medals around his neck was immensely successful.
Spitz did keep up as a swimmer. In 1990 he was tested in a flume at Colorado Springs along with a bunch of other Olympic swimmers and was found more efficient in the water than any of them. It was then he thought about a come-back at 41 for the 1992 Olympics.
He was encouraged by an offer to compete in a 50 meter fly against a current world class swimmer, Tom Jager, for $10,000, and it would be televised.
On screen the difference in size between Jager and Spitz was striking. Jager was 6’2’, weighing close to 200 pounds, while Spitz was 6’ and maybe 180. In 20 years much more intensive training and weights created a different swimmer. Spitz also had the handicap of still using an old style start, relatively flat and no porpoise action into the water.
In the actual race Jager was a half body length ahead at the start and won convincingly, 24.92 to 26.70 for Spitz. Spitz had gone out in 25.38 when he won the 100 fly at Munich. Spitz later had a time trial for the 100 meter fly and only went a 58.03. The 1992 Olympic dream was over.
When I thought of this effort, though, I eventually recognized that in 1992 those times were marvelously fast for a 41 year old. I gave Spitz credit for even trying to make the 1992 Olympics at 42. Swimming had changed so much since Munich.
Since then Spitz has been a developer in southern California and semi-retired. He graciously congratulated Michael Phelps when Phelps won eight golds in Beijing. Just recently Spitz was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (Afib), and he has become a spokesperson for finding other older athletes who may have the same problem.
Over the years it has become obvious that Mark Spitz became the face of US Swimming after 1972. He was the one with whom swimmers were compared. Until Phelps, no one thought anyone else would win seven or more gold medals in an Olympics. Spitz set the standard for others to shoot for.
In addition, Spitz has become a genial example of how to carry oneself after such Olympic glories. Even in his defeat by Jager he was gracious and complimentary. I can see in Phelps the same qualities. But Mark Spitiz was first.