A LEGEND RETURNS
He has shaved off his mustache, weighs eight pounds more than he did when he won seven gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and is 39 years old. But he's still Mark Spitz, and for that reason alone his decision to return to the pool and try for a spot on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the 100-meter butterfly—always his strongest event—has to be taken seriously.
Spitz, whose training in recent years has consisted mostly of summertime laps in his 41-foot backyard pool in Los Angeles, told SI last week that he will begin workouts under UCLA coach Ron Ballatore later this month. "I'm not doing it for the money, honest to god," said Spitz, who'll have less time for his real estate development business. "I'm doing it for the challenge." Spitz said his goals are to make the '92 team and to swim faster than he did in Munich, but added, "Look, maybe there's a world record in me. I'd be foolish to say that hasn't crossed my mind."
Spitz said his decision to come back evolved over the last six or seven months. He was intrigued by the fact that many masters swimmers have turned in the best times of their lives while in their 40's. Spitz felt great—he doesn't smoke or drink, and the weight he has added is mostly muscle from weight training—and figured that with modern workout techniques he might be able to improve on the then world-record time of 54.27 seconds he swam in the 100 fly in Munich.
Spitz believes he could have gone a second faster in Munich if he hadn't swum several races before the 100-fly final and if anyone had pushed him. Now he'll focus on one event and have all too much competition. Since 1972, 34 swimmers have surpassed 54.27 in the 100 fly; the current world mark, held by Pablo Morales of the U.S., is 52.84. A 54.27 clocking in the 100-fly finals in Seoul last year would have been good for eighth place.
Although Spitz has to be considered a long shot to make the U.S. team for Barcelona, it's worth noting that just five years ago, shortly before Rowdy Gaines won three gold medals in the Los Angeles Olympics, Spitz raced Gaines in five 50-meter freestyles at the end of one of Gaines's workouts. Spitz won three of the races, and the other two were too close to call. "I know I'm swimming better now than when I beat Rowdy," said Spitz.
For the most part, friends and family have encouraged Spitz, although his father, Arnold, told Spitz's wife, Suzy, "You didn't know Mark when he was swimming. When he's in training, he has to eat on demand, sleep on demand, do everything on demand."
"He does that anyway," replied Suzy.
Spitz isn't worried about diminishing his place in history if he doesn't qualify for Barcelona. "No matter what, they can't take '72 away from me," he said. "What I did then, I did then. What I do now, I do now."