Happy Birthday Mark Spitz: Seven-Golds Superstar Turns 70 Today

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Time flies but not as fast as the ‘fly times of a man born 70 years ago this day. February 10: happy birthday Mark Spitz, he of the seven gold medals, all won in world records, at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Happy 70th Birthday Mr. Spitz

Until Michael Phelps thundered to eight golds at Beijing 2008, Spitz was considered the undisputed ‘greatest’ swimmer in history, the winningest athlete all-time in any Olympic sport at one Games, the scope of his achievement stunning for its time and towering to this day, 48 years on.

The American swimmer stopped racing as an elite athlete gunning for gold after his heyday in Munich but a man with a pantheon like Spitz’s never retires from the status of his youth, his tally, his times, their meaning then and now eternal.

A tribute in honour of Spitz and the standard he set for all who followed down the years:

Mark Spitz – Munich Master Of Nailing The Moment

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Mark Spitz – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Seven swims, seven golds, seven world records – a record unmatched in any sport in the Olympic realm for 36 years. In 1976, late doyenne of swimming journalism Pat Besford wrote “… his unique feat in Munich in 1972 is unlikely ever to be repeated” so extraordinary the tally. In 2008, Phelps went one better but the awe of that follow-up flight into outer orbit of sporting achievement did not take away the shine of the first.

The 1972 world records and gold medals went Spitz’s way in the 100m and 200m on both freestyle and butterfly, and through his work as a member of three victorious USA relay quartets. All of which transcended his sport and granted the American a hallowed place in the pantheon of greats, not only in the pool but in world sporting history.

Mark Spitz was born in Modesto, California, on February 10, 1950, the son of Arnold and Lenore Spitz. He was the first-born of three children. The family moved to Hawaii when Mark was 2 and it was there in the birthplace of Duke Kahanamoku that he learned to swim. It was back to California when he was six and the Spitz family settled in Sacramento. A few years on, young Mark joined the Arden Hills Swim Club.

What a chance: into the home of owner and founder Sherm Chavoor, a young coach who would go down in history for his work with the likes of distance giants of their time Debbie Meyer and Mike Burton on his way to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Spitz would carve out his own unique and towering plinth in the same place but success would not come without pain, a steep and very public learning curve, reinvention and drive.

Chavoor’s coaching went hand in hand with unrelenting pressure to ‘win’ from Spitz’s father. If you didn’t win, you lost, winning ‘perfection’, anything else ‘failure’, the option as stark as that.

Mark Spitz pursued perfection from go. He set his first U.S. national age group record in a boys’ 9-10 age group race in June 1960 and many more standards would tumble as he worked his way to the cusp of teenage years.

It was clear that Spitz was special – and his father demanded only the best for Mark and sister Nancy. Dad had heard great things about Santa Clara’s George Haines – so he moved the family in 1964 to the ‘world’s top team’, including Steven Clark, Richard Roth and young Mark’s idol, Don Schollander.

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It was Schollander’s 1964 triumph as the first man to win four golds at one Olympics in the pool that lit a spark in the young mind of Mark Spitz. Sparks flew too between Haines and Spitz senior and junior but the success kept coming. At his international debut at the 1965 Maccabiah Games in Israel, Spitz took four golds. Two years on, he claimed the first of 24 U.S. National AAU titles with victory in the 100m butterfly and a summer later in 1967 claimed a record five gold medals at the Pan American Games.

In California on June 25 that year, he set the first of 33 world records, a 4:10.6 over 400m freestyle. The event would account for the first two of his world records and over the next five years, he would unleash a volley of pace-setting bullets like no other solo world-record setter ever had:

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1967

  • 4:10.6 400 free 25 June 1967
  • 4:08.8 400 free 7 July 1967
  • 2:06.4 200 fly 26 July 1967
  • 56.29 100 fly 31 July 1967
  • 2:06.4e 200 fly 13 August 1967
  • 55.7 100 fly 7 October 1967
  • 2:05.7 200 fly 8 October 1967

1968

  • 4:07.7 400 free 23 June 1968
  • 55.6 100 fly 30 August 1968

1969

  • 1:54.3 200 free 12 July 1969

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1970

  • 2:05.4 200 fly 22 August 1970
  • 51.94 100 free (h) 23 August 1970

1971

  • 55.0 100 fly 25 August 1971
  • 2:03.9 200 fly 27 August 1971
  • 2:03.9(e) 200 fly 27 August 1971
  • 1:54.2 200 free 4 September 1971
  • 1:53.5 200 free relay 10 September 1971

1972

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  • 2:01.87 200 fly (h) 2 August 1972
  • 2:01.53 200 fly 2 August 1972
  • 54.72 100 fly (h) 4 August 1972
  • 54.56 100 fly 4 August 1972
  • 51.47 100 free (h) 5 August 1972
  • 2:00.70 200 fly 28 August 1972 Olympics
  • 1:52.78 200 free 29 August 1972 Olympics
  • 54.27 100 fly 31 August 1972 Olympics
  • 51.22 100 free 3 September 1972 Olympics

Struggle along the way

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Mexico City, the venue for the 1968 Olympic Games stands at 7,350 ft (about 2,240m). Many struggled with the conditions, the 200m free final a case in point. Australia’s Mike Wenden and Schollander raced neck-and-neck but the Australian had the closing edge and snatched victory in an Olympic record of 1:55.2, 0.6sec ahead of the American. Far from being able to celebrate the moment in the rarified air at altitude, Wenden lost consciousness – and was saved from the danger of drowning by 1964 1,500m champion and teammate Robert Windle (6th), while Schollander had to be given oxygen.

Spitz was slated to go one better than Schollander’s 1964 tally of four golds but illness and altitude intervened and the 18-year-old took silver in the 100 ‘fly, bronze in the 100 free and gold in the 4×100 and 4×200 free relays. Not a bad debut – but well below expectations in the minds of media, swimmer’s father and indeed the swimmer himself. The word ‘failure’ was on the wind and, having been conditioned to agree, Spitz did just that.

Two ways to go: quit or shake it up, restore belief and try again. He had planned to attend USC but an eleventh-hour change of mind led him to accept a scholarship to USC’s collegiate rival, Indiana University. There, he came under the tutelage of James “Doc” Counsilman, one of the greats of coaching history and a pioneer of “scientific” thought on swimming speed. Under Counsilman’s guidance, Spitz honed his skills and his mindset and by 1971, the bulk of his world records in the bag, Spitz was to be found collecting the Sullivan Award, presented each year to the AAU’s top athlete across all sports.

The Masterstroke Of Munich 1972

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After great trials, Spitz arrived in Munich a favourite in several events and the U.S. a favourite for all three relays. Before the gun went off, Spitz played a psychological card in what he later called “The Great Moustache Caper”.

At a time when few men wore caps and goggles were yet to make it to races, the big gain on speed was to shave down, even, like Genter, to shave heads. Spitz went the opposite way, the mop and moustache part of the poster-boy image with those seven gold medals.

Spitz would later say that he was approached by a Russian coach and asked if he would shave off his moustache before racing began. Spitz said he would not and that research had shown that moustache helped to make him more streamlined. There had been no research, of course, but at the 1973 world championships, according to Spitz, “half the men on the Russian team sported moustaches”.

The gun went off in Munich with the moustache in place. Spitz’s first gold was smelted in the 200m ‘fly, an event in which he had traded the world record with Gary Hall, Indiana and USA teammate and Olympics roommate. Spitz produced a sensational 2:00.7 world record, Hall taking silver. The writing was on the end wall: the man with the multi-medal potential was in throttling form. That same evening, gold No2 came in the 4x100m free with David Edgar, John Murphy and Jerry Heidenreich.

Spitz in action

Next day, next up, the 200m free: 1:52.78, gold and WR No 3. Two days of rest followed before the 100 ‘fly delivered gold and WR No 4, a 54.27 triumph that was followed by Spitz anchoring the U.S. 4×200 free quartet to gold and WR No 5 alongside John Kinsella, Fred Tyler and Steven Genter and a shaven head that remains one of the lasting images of the 1972 Games in the pool.

The 200m free medal ceremony turned controversial when Spitz, in a rush, carried his shoes to the podium with him. The shoes were at his side during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner but afterwards Spitz picked them up and waved to the crowd. “Product placement” was cited in an official complaint from the Soviet team. The shoes were in fact old and the IOC rejected the complaint.

For Spitz, the bigger issue was the enormity of it after five gold medals. He froze for a moment: he had become the most decorated winner in Olympic swim history with a golden count that he did not want to spoil with a silver. Two events left: the 4×100 medley, a fairly safe gold, and the 100m freestyle. Spitz would later recall:

“I was thinking of scratching. I had only qualified third for the final and didn’t want to swim it. Besides, up until then, I’d won five golds and, barring a DQ, I knew we would take the medley relay. So I felt assured of winning six golds, all in world record time. No one else had ever won more than four. I figured six-for-six was infinitely better than six golds plus a silver or bronze, and I knew my teammate, Jerry Heidenreich, was going to be very hard to beat.”

Coaches rallied round to get Spitz back on his blocks and set to complete his mission. Don Gambril is quoted as having said to the 22-year-old:

“Why are you thinking of scratching when no one in that field can touch you? If you scratch, you will never forgive yourself.”

Spitz manned up: 51.22, world record; Heidenreich, silver in 51.65, Vladimir Bure (URS) third, 51.77. The relief matched the celebrations and all that was left was the medley relay. Spitz raced fly, after Mike Stamm on backstroke, Thomas Bruce on breaststroke and before Heidenreich delivered that seventh gold in a world record 3:48.16 for Spitz, quartet and the USA.

Tragedy Strikes

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Two days later, Palestinian terrorists seized, and later murdered, 11 Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. It was the darkest day in Olympic history. As the world’s greatest Jewish athlete, Spitz was believed to be a target. He was spirited out of Munich to London and then on to his home in California, where he watched tragic events unfold.

It was during his brief stopover in London that Spitz posed for the iconic poster of him draped in seven gold medals and his Speedos, and sporting the most famous moustache ever to get wet. The poster, which sold more than 5 million copies, was ubiquitous, forever etching a triumphant 22 year-old Mark Spitz in our memories.

Like Phelps many years later, Spitz was incredibly versatile: he was ranked world top 3 on backstroke and would have had a fine medley in his too had he focussed on it, perhaps in a career that would have stretched to 1976 and even beyond if we superimpose the world of today over the 1970s.

Life After Greatness in the Pool

After Munich, Spitz postponed going to Dental School at USC and went into acting. His thespian skills paled by comparison to his swimming and it all meant that Spitz would live with the regret of never having made it to dental college.

Even so, Spitz landed several lucrative corporate endorsement contracts and is reported to have earned about $7 million in the two years after his Munich success. A big help when it came to him moving into property, a sector he fared well in alongside his work in public appearance, speech-giving and ambassadorial roles such as that he holds with Laureus.

He married his college sweetheart, Suzy Weiner, a UCLA theatre student and part-time model back then, and they have two sons, Matthew and Justin.

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At the age of 41, Spitz attempted a comeback of sorts for the 1992 Olympics but fell well shy of making trials cuts. On the way, he raced at the Canet round of the Mare Nostrum Tour. I followed him from the pool in which he raced a good (and excellent for his age) but no longer competitive 50m butterfly among the elite of the hour, over to the nearby hotel where he gave a speech that called on FINA and others to think again about the Olympic swim schedule: perhaps it was time to have far more 50m races and head to heads to attract more attention to the sport, he noted.

Afterwards, he spotted Tamas Darnyi eating lunch in the garden. Spitz went over to the Hungarian double Olympic medley champion on his way to a repeat performance at Barcelona 1992, shook hands and said how much he had admired him and his achievements. Darnyi stood, smiled and then returned to his lunch.

“You realise, of course, that in your world of 50m head to heads, there would be no Tamas Darnyi, 400m medley Olympic champion?” I asked Spitz. He shrugged and smiled, his ideas not yet having had time to take mature shape.

Spitz made up for his moment of insult to all that Hungarian talent excelling at more than  200m down the years when, in 2006, he received due critical acclaim for his narration of Freedom’s Fury, produced by Quentin Tarantino and Lucy Liu, a documentary about the Olympic water polo team’s famous Blood in the Water match against Russia during the Revolution of 1956.

Two years on, Spitz had good reason to feel somewhat snubbed when he was left off the invitation list to the 2008 Olympic Games at which Phelps was a prospect for the seven and went one further with eight.

Spitz was quoted as saying: “I never got invited. You don’t go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am … I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That’s almost demeaning to me. It is not almost—it is.”

Michael Phelps [photo: USA Swimming]

The issue was one for the IOC and USOC, though FINA could also have helped if it had had the right mindset: the international swimming federation held its centenary gala dinner in Beijing but the audience was largely made up of blazers, missing from the guest list all those like Spitz, Meyer, Shane Gould and many others who were the stars of those 100 years of history, stars without whom there would have been no show.

Spitz provided a gracious quote after Phelps [Photo: USA Swimming] had won his seventh gold in Beijing, telling a U.S. TV network:

“You know, Bob [Bowman, photo, Craig Lord] and Michael, I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time, when it would happen and who I would say it to, and of course I thought I was going to say it to you for some time now. But, it’s the word that comes to mind, ‘epic’.

Bob Bowman

“What you did tonight was epic, and it was epic for the whole world to see how great you really are. I never thought for one moment that you were out of that race and contention, because I watched you at Athens win the race by similar margins, and 18 months ago at the Worlds by similar margins. And, you know, that is a tribute to your greatness. And now the whole world knows.

We are so proud of you Michael here in America, and we are so proud of you and the way that you handle yourself, and you represent such an inspiration to all the youngsters around the world. You know, you weren’t born when I did what I did, and I’m sure that I was a part of your inspiration, and I take that as a full compliment.

And they say that you judge one’s character by the company you keep, and I’m happy to keep company with you. And you have a tremendous responsibility for all those people that you are going to inspire over the next number of years, and I know that you will wear the crown well. Congratulations, Mike.”

Spitz As A Critic Of The System

Meanwhile, Spitz continues to be critical of FINA and the IOC on a number of matters, including doping. In 1998 he called FINA’s lack of action in the midst of the China Crisis. He also claimed on Australian radio that FINA did not truly want to fight the good fight on doping, pointing to an issue that WADA has attempted to get to grips with in its 2015 Code by calling on federations to test beyond the selection of substances decided by a blazer. Said Spitz:

“They don’t want to test for everything because there’s tremendous pressure from the television networks because they want the television to have athletic competitions with the world record holders there for the finals.

“They want the medals not to be tainted in their value of accomplishment by winning them, and it’s all about ratings and commercial selling of time and about money. And an International Olympic Committee has got their hand in the pockets of the network television people, so there’s a tremendous conflict of interest in what they should do and what they’re doing.”

Sailing Into His Seventies

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In September last year, arena  announced the re-signing of  Spitz as a brand ambassador, 46 years after he first collaborated with the company in the pioneering days of sports sponsorship.

Spitz, 69, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat, last year. The condition affects some 3 million Americans.

A member of the board of directors of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Spitz has worked with doctors over the last year to manage the condition, the swimming giant revealed on the 47th anniversary of winning his seventh gold medal at the Munich Olympics.

Spitz posted on social media:

“I feel lucky that I was able to catch this before it put me at serious risk for other heart complications. I look forward to spreading awareness about AFib as I learn more about this condition and live with my own diagnosis.”

Happy 70th birthday Mark Spitz.

 

 

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Jennifer Parks

    You sure were something, Mark Spitz. Love what my friend, Coach Don Gambril, said to you about your swimming the 100_free, in ’72. Olympics. Welcome to the 70#, stay well!

    • avatar
      Irene David

      Happy Birthday, Mark! You will always be a hero to so many! Loved watching you swim!

  2. avatar
    Stuart Munro

    Happy Birthday Mark. I was an age group swimmer when you were setting all those records. Everyone admired your swimming talents and super hero image you brought to the sport in the 60’s and 70’s. I hope you and your family are all doing well.

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