Swimming's golden boy
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"There's nothing better in the world, when you're trying to be the best in the world, than to actually say, 'I am the world record holder. I am the best in the world.'"
-- Mark Spitz on ESPN's SportsCentury show
Spitz, the only athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympiad, was voted No. 33 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
Sept. 3, 1972 -- Spitz was raised with the attitude, taught to him by his father Arnold, that "swimming isn't everything, winning is."
|Mark Spitz was bold out of the pool, as well.|
After winning five Olympic gold medals in four days, he said, "No, this isn't fun, not yet at least. It's tremendous -- the pressure of not losing. I'd rather win six out of six, or even four out of four, then six out of seven. It's reached a point to where my self-esteem comes into it. I just don't want to lose."
Spitz considered dropping out of the 100-meter freestyle because, fearing American Jerry Heidenreich's prowess, he didn't consider himself a sure thing. But Spitz's coach, Sherm Chavoor, who was in Munich as coach of the U.S. women's team, convinced his student that he would be perceived as "chicken" if he didn't compete in the 100.
So Spitz swam. In the semifinal heat, Spitz held back and finished behind Michael Wenden, the defending Olympic champion from Australia, and Heidenreich.
In the final, Spitz surprised his competitors by starting quickly rather than saving his strength for the second lap. He reached the wall first in 24.56 seconds, almost a half-body ahead of Heidenreich and the Soviet Union's Vladimir Bure. With 15 yards to go, Spitz suddenly lost his rhythm, but he regrouped to finish a half-stroke ahead of the charging Heidenreich.
Spitz won in 51.22, knocking .25 seconds off his own world record. With his sixth gold secured, he raised his arms in a victory salute as the crowd roared.
The next day, Spitz won his seventh gold as part of the record-setting 4 x 100-meter medley relay.
Odds and ends
Spitz, Carl Lewis, Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina have won the most Olympic gold medals -- nine.
With 11, Spitz (nine gold, one silver and one bronze) and fellow swimmer Matt Biondi (eight, two and one) are the all-time leading U.S. Olympic medal winners.
In his career, Spitz set 26 individual world records in the freestyle and butterfly. He also contributed to seven relay world records.
When Spitz was 10, a conflict arose between his afternoon swimming workouts and attending Hebrew school. Arnold Spitz told the rabbi, "Even God likes a winner."
By the time Spitz was 18, he had won 26 national and international titles, and broken 10 world and 28 U.S. records.
Mark sounded like his father when he said, before the 1968 Olympics, "No. 1 all-around in the world is great, but No. 2 is bad." He predicted he'd win 6 gold in the 6 events he was entered.
After his disappointing '68 Olympics (no gold), Spitz jilted Long Beach State to attend Indiana in January 1969. Sports Illustrated wrote, "Spitz came to Indiana with the well-documented reputation of being a spoiled brat, a misfit and a loner, but he seems to be growing up."
Spitz led legendary coach Doc Counsilman's team to four NCAA championshps.
At the 1972 Olympics, Spitz was relatively unavailable to the media. "I can't devote too much time to you guys," he said. "I need the time to psyche myself up."
When Spitz was cleared for waving his adidas shoes at a medals ceremony during the games, he said, "I'm already a Jesse Owens. Now they're trying to make a Jim Thorpe out of me."
About his future after the Olympics, Spitz said, "Maybe I'll do some nudie movies. I'm hot to trot. ... One thing for sure, I don't want to end up like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe."
When Spitz was asked if he found any irony in his playing the conquering Jew in Germany, he shrugged and said, "Actually, I've always liked this country." Then he added, tapping a lampshade, "Even though this shade is probably made out of one of my aunts."