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Swimming champion Mark Spitz
Merrell Noden
August 04, 1997
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August 04, 1997

Swimming Champion Mark Spitz

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His splendid black mustache—a reminder to all those meticulously shorn and shaved adversaries in the pool that Mark Spitz didn't have to sacrifice fashion to be the best—is long gone. "I tried growing it back, but it was so gray, it looked ridiculous," says Spitz, chuckling. That's not the only sign that the golden boy of the 1972 Munich Olympics is now 47. Spitz is 20 pounds heavier than in his prime. He has two screws in his left leg (from a skiing accident), and his back is arthritic. But 25 years ago Spitz was perfect. Seven races. Seven gold medals. Seven world records. No one has dominated an Olympics the way he did that summer. Add the four medals Spitz won at the Mexico City Games four years earlier, and he shares with Matt Biondi the record for career Olympic swimming medals.

Retiring after the '72 Games, Spitz became the first athlete to make a huge post-Olympic splash with corporate America. His endorsement contracts were estimated to be worth $5 million. He appeared on television specials with Bob Hope, Bill Cosby and Sonny and Cher. A poster of the mustachioed, rakishly handsome Spitz, posing in just his red-white-and-blue swimsuit and seven gold medals, became the most popular-selling poster of a sports figure. "I'm a commodity, an endorser," Spitz said then. The sentiment was typical of his blunt and often brazen honesty. In '83 Spitz called the National Sports Festival a "joke" and "an exercise in futility." Jay Bernstein, Spitz's press agent following the '72 Games, once said, "Mark hasn't learned the art of talking and saying nothing."

Today Spitz lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Suzy (who appeared with him on his third and final SI cover the week of their 1973 marriage), and their sons, Matthew, 15, and Justin, 5. He still follows a hectic, eclectic schedule, as he did in Munich, investing in real estate, serving as spokesman for SmarTalk Teleservices, a phone card company, and giving motivational speeches. The waterproof Mark Spitz model Swatch watch was the best seller of the company's recent Centennial Olympic line.

After failing in his much-publicized attempt to make a comeback and qualify for the '92 Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly, Spitz stopped swimming for three months. He is now back in the pool, working out with the UCLA masters swim team. "I squeak, rattle and roll," he says. But the biggest difference between the mature Spitz and his brash younger self lies in his relaxed enjoyment of the sport. "I have a whole different mission now," says Spitz. "I enjoy the camaraderie."