Spitz named 33rd best athlete of century

Spitz lived up to enormous expectations
By M.B. Roberts
Special to ESPN.com

Mark Spitz, considered the swiftest swimmer of all time, made his big splash during the 1972 Olympics, becoming the first athlete to win seven gold medals in an Olympiad. His performances were even more remarkable considering world records were set in all seven events.

 Mark Spitz
Mark Spitz nearly mastered swimming's most difficult stroke, the butterfly.

Fulfilling all the pre-Olympic hype, he won four individual events -- in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle and 100- and 200-meter butterfly -- and three relay races.

After his Munich triumph, Spitz was bombarded with endorsement offers. He soon came to be known more as a good-looking, mustachioed pitchman than for his signature butterfly stroke. He made some $7 million in two years.

Despite the efforts of his agent and public-relations firm, his desired post-Olympics Hollywood career floundered as critics panned Spitz's performances on TV shows and commercials. It seemed he was criticized in his post-Olympic life as much as he was cheered. But controversy was nothing new. It surrounded Spitz almost from the time he plugged his nose and jumped in a pool.

He was born on Feb. 10, 1950, in Modesto, Cal. When he was two years old, his family moved to Hawaii, where his father Arnold taught him to swim.

After four years in Hawaii, the family returned to California -- Sacramento this time -- and at the YMCA Spitz received his first competitive instruction. At age nine, his dad took him to Arden Hills Swim Club to train under the celebrated Sherm Chavoor, who would be a life-long mentor to Spitz.

Arnold Spitz often told his son, "Swimming isn't everything; winning is." By age 10, Spitz held 17 national age-group and one world record. He was named the world's best 10-and-under swimmer.

When he was 14, his father said, "It's now or never." The family moved to Santa Clara so Spitz could train with George Haines of the famed Santa Clara Swim Club, despite Arnold having to commute more than 80 miles to work each day.

Spitz continued to excel, especially in swimming's most difficult stroke: the butterfly. At 16, he won the 100-meter butterfly at the National AAU Championships, the first of his 24 AAU titles. The next year, 1967, he won five gold medals at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg.

He was expected to win several individual gold medals at the 1968 Olympics, having already set 10 world records. The controversy came when Spitz himself, sounding brash and cocky, predicted he would win six golds.

He did not. In Mexico City, Spitz won two team golds -- in the 4 x 100 and 4 x 200-meter freestyle relays -- and two individual medals, silver in the 100-meter butterfly and bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. What would have been a triumph to most was a disappointment to Spitz.

He re-dedicated himself to swimming, and left for Indiana University to train with legendary coach Doc Counsilman, who was also his coach in Mexico City.

A pre-dental student, Spitz continued to accumulate awards, medals and world records in swimming. He won eight individual NCAA titles. In 1971, he won the Sullivan Award as the country's top amateur athlete. He was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972.

In 1972, after graduating from Indiana, he was prepared for the Olympics. His first race in Munich was the 200-meter butterfly. When Spitz touched the wall to win in 2:00.7, he leaped out of the water, his arms held high.

Even more exciting, though, was his next event: the 200-meter freestyle. Spitz won in 1:52.78, defeating his teammate, Steve Genter, who had been released from the hospital only the day before following surgery for a collapsed lung.

Later, on the medal stand, Spitz arrived barefoot, carrying his shoes. He dropped them to the side while "The Star Spangled Banner" played. Then he reached down to pick up his shoes and waved them to the cheering crowd. The Soviets accused him of blatant commercialism. Maintaining the gesture was innocent, the shoes were old and he wasn't paid, Spitz was cleared by an IOC committee.


He shook off the medal-stand incident and won his next event, the 100-meter butterfly (his favorite), by a full body length in 54.27 seconds. But controversy returned when Spitz was rumored to be pulling out of the 100 freestyle. Despite fears that teammate Jerry Heidenreich could spoil his gold-medal sweep, Spitz did race.

He won the gold, finishing a half-stroke ahead of Heidenreich in 51:22 seconds. Spitz's three team golds came in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay (3:26:42), the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay (7:35.78) and the 4 x 100-meter medley relay (3:48.16).

Then tragedy struck. At 4:30 a.m. September 5, Palestinian terrorists broke into the athletes' compound, killing two members of the Israeli delegation and taking nine others hostage. Spitz, who had won his final medal only hours earlier, lay sleeping nearby.

In the morning Spitz attended a press conference, flanked by coaches and German police. "I think the murders in the village are very tragic," he said. "I have no further comment."

Spitz, who is Jewish, was understandably nervous. He left for London immediately, before the closing ceremonies.

Spitz was criticized for discussing his movie career while the nine hostages were still held. (Tragically, they were killed in an attempted rescue).

Despite some negative press, Spitz received a hero's welcome at home. He quit swimming, shelved plans for dental school and sorted through his numerous endorsement offers. His agent said Spitz was the greatest hero since Lindbergh and one of two people whose name everyone in the U.S. knew (the other being President Nixon).

He signed Spitz as a spokesperson for the Schick Company, the California Milk Advisory Board, adidas, Speedo and countless other companies making everything from swimming pools to men's underwear. A poster featuring Spitz wearing his swimsuit and seven gold medals made him the hottest pin-up since Betty Grable.

Despite worldwide female admiration, Spitz called and began dating the daughter of one of his father's business acquaintances after seeing her picture. Less than a year after Munich, Spitz and Suzy Weiner, a UCLA theater student and part-time model, were married.

His showbiz career was not so storybook. Spitz's performances on a Bob Hope special, Sonny & Cher, Johnny Carson and many others were bland. Hollywood quit calling. Even commercial clients backed off. He continued as a broadcaster for some time, but within a few years, he had all but vanished as a public figure.

Spitz amused himself with his new hobby: sailing. He eventually began a successful real-estate company in Beverly Hills.

People always asked him, "Do you still swim?" Remarkably, the answer most of the time was "no." But in 1989 at age 39, at 6-foot-1 and 182 pounds (eight pounds heavier and 17 years older than in 1972), he began training for the 1992 Olympic Trials.

His event was the 100-meter butterfly. Although his 1972 records had long been broken, he was encouraged because he had beaten then-record holder Rowdy Gaines in a series of races in 1984.

In 1991, a mustache-less Spitz raced Olympians Tom Jager and Matt Biondi in separate 50-meter butterfly races on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Spitz lost both. He also failed to qualify for the 1992 Olympics. His best time was 58:03; he needed 55:59.

Spitz still lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons. He enjoys sailing and traveling. Having given up his real-estate business, he considers himself an "entrepreneur" and continues to do promotional work.