Forty Years Ago Today, Mark Spitz Surpassed Legendary Status in Munich

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 4. FORTY years ago today, Mark Spitz got his seventh gold medal draped around his neck at the 1972 Olympics. I wasn't alive when this happened, but the impact of that performance permeated nearly my entire swimming life from the moment I first jumped into a swimming pool at age 4.

Spitz's feats in Munich are like a ghost story coaches tell their swimmers, only with a happy ending. I watched the Olympics in 1984 and was in awe of people like Tracy Caulkins, Rowdy Gaines and Michael Gross. My coach said they would all go down in history as some of the best the sport has ever seen, and added: “But they'll never be as good as Mark Spitz.” And then he proceeded to tell me about those eight days in Munich.

And so, every Olympics after that, Spitz's performances were the bar which every athlete had to reach. Matt Biondi tried it in 1988, coming up short of the perfect Olympics, but still winning seven medals. And then there was Michael Phelps, coming a few steps short of the top of the mountain in 2004, then climbing to the top and on to another stratosphere in 2008.

Spitz's first race in Munich was the 200 butterfly on August 28, and there was no way he was losing this race. His rivals were teammates Gary Hall, who held the world record in 1970 before Spitz took it back in 1971, and Gary Backhaus. Hall and Backhaus fought hard, but a gold medal was not in the cards for them at this meet. Spitz's time of 2:00.70 lasted as the world record for four years.

Unlike Phelps' run in 2008, Spitz was pretty much assured of gold in the three relay events, and so he had no problem winning gold number two in the 400 free relay with David Edgar, John Murphy and Jerry Heidenreich in 3:26.42. Spitz swam his leg on the relay about an hour after completing the 200 fly race.

Spitz only had one race on August 29. The 200 freestyle had long been one of his best events, and he showed why with a big win over teammate Steve Genter in 1:52.78.

With only heats and semifinals of the 100 butterfly on August 30, Spitz was fresh and full of fire on August 31 for another double-duty day. First up was the 100 butterfly final, in which he was able to improve on the silver-medal performance from the 1968 Olympics with a world record swim of 54.27. Not long after, he helped the United States to gold in the 800 free relay (7:35.78) with John Kinsella, Fred Tyler and Genter.

The way Spitz won his last two gold medals is what makes his accomplishment a little bit easier than Phelps' feat. With two days between championship finals races, Spitz had plenty of time to relax, re-focus and mentally prepare for what he believed would be his most challenging individual event: the 100 freestyle. (Phelps only had one day in 2008 when he didn't swim in a championship final.) Spitz performed well in the heats and semifinals, but expressed doubts about winning to ABC commentator Donna de Varona before the race. Though Phelps never publicly expressed doubt before stepping up to the final of the 100 butterfly, the scenarios are similar. Like Spitz, Phelps' last individual race would be his toughest, and like Spitz, the race was not decided until the final stroke. Spitz won gold medal number six in world record time (51.22), but only by four tenths of a second over teammate Jerry Heidenreich. Phelps' margin of victory in the 100 butterfly was considerably smaller. Only one hundredth of a second separated him from Milorad Cavic to become one of the unforgettable races in Beijing.

Spitz and Phelps both closed out their historic runs in the 400 medley relay. While practically everyone appreciated the moment at the time, very few knew how quickly and powerfully Mark Spitz would transcend the sport. While not an official world in the Webster's dictionary, “Spitzian” became a word thrown around every four years. (“Phelpsian” sort of made a run at becoming part of the lexicon, and enjoyed a little more than its 15 minutes of fame.)

Watch all of Spitz's seven gold medal races:

Though Spitz's accomplishments are now rated second-best in the Olympic annals, what he did in those eight days should never be forgotten, much like we should never forget how close Biondi got in 1988 or that Phelps gave it a try in 2004.

Contact Jeff Commings at jeffc@swimmingworldmagazine.com.

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