After a pause of 17 years, during which wars ended, climates shifted and the world added nearly two billion wide-eyed children, we rejoin Mark Spitz. He is sprawled on a park bench near his house in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. "It does seem a long time ago," he says. "You see footage of how we used to dress, and you feel like we did when we were kids and watched a film of Jesse Owens."
The importance of touchstone events endures. But their images grow more grainy every day. In 1972, in Munich, Spitz became the most victorious athlete in Olympic history, swimming to seven gold medals—and seven world records—in seven tries. Then he retired, and the moment began to retreat, began to be overlaid—for us, for him—with fresh loves and lessons. Spitz made quick money in endorsements. He married. He took up sailing. He did commentary for ABC. He started clothing and real estate development businesses. He had a son. He practically never swam.
Now he is 39. Darkly tanned, in a striped polo shirt, shorts and running shoes, he looks a healthy 35. When he talks about how training for seven events compromised his speed in his best race, the 100-meter butterfly, he suddenly seems about 30.
Spitz no longer wears the mustache that sold a million posters. His face is familiar but more open. When he talks about his butterfly stroke, about how his large palms still effectively seek out undisturbed water, he seems 25.
And when he talks about why he believes he can make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the 100 fly and go on to win in Barcelona, when he'll be 42, he seems 16, though perhaps a sweeter 16 than he was the first time around. "I feel like a toy that's been left in the closet, and now I've been taken out and wound up," he says. "It's nice. It's weird. I actually get to premeditate something."
There was little in the way of forethought when in 1958, at age eight, Spitz began tearing up the YMCA pool in Sacramento. "Isn't it the way with most successes," he says, "that things just fit together to get you started, and you carry on to the limit?"
As a child, Spitz was propelled by an explosive mix of talent and parental ambition. In 1970, his father, Arnold, was quoted as saying, "Swimming isn't everything, winning is.... I never said to him, 'You're second, that's great.' I told him I didn't care about winning age groups, I care for world records."
If Arnold was willing to drive Mark, Mark was eager to be driven. "Only twice did my parents' judgment really influence my career," he says. "When I was nine, they took me from the YMCA to Coach Sherm Chavoor at the Arden Hills Swim Club. Then when I was 14 and we'd moved to Walnut Creek, they took me to George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club. Both times I said, 'Hey, great idea,' and bit off the challenge. But I couldn't know what I was getting into. Once I was at Santa Clara, though, my parents were less of a factor. George Haines was the one bringing me to fruition."
It was a two-pronged struggle. At 16, Spitz was often insufferably confident of his own gifts. Thrown in with an older generation of Santa Clara swimmers dominated by Don Schollander, who had won a record four golds in the 1964 Olympics, Spitz found he could emulate them, and sometimes beat them, but he could not be accepted by them.
"I learned head games from Schollander," Spitz says. "I learned to walk the pool deck with an arrogant aura." This did not endear him to his teammates. Bright in things mechanical and mathematical but inept in language, Spitz was an easy mark for ridicule. Unable to disguise his ego, he was thought conceited. Spitz's reaction was to harden his heart and answer his critics with his performance.