SI Vault
Kenny Moore
October 23, 1989
At 39, Mark Spitz, winner of seven golds at the 1972 Games, is trying what no mere mortal would—an Olympic comeback
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 23, 1989

Bionic Man

At 39, Mark Spitz, winner of seven golds at the 1972 Games, is trying what no mere mortal would—an Olympic comeback

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

In 1967, Spitz set several world records. The next year Haines believed that Spitz, then 18, was capable of winning six golds in the Mexico City Olympics. Spitz believed that too. Yet he won only two, both in relays, and had the galling experience of hearing his Santa Clara teammates cheering for his American opponents. This was the reward of great expectations: Two Olympic gold medals seemed like failure.

Then Spitz got a break. He went off to Indiana University. Before he arrived, coach James E. (Doc) Counsilman called his team together and asked his swimmers to judge Spitz on his behavior, not his reputation. "When he came, his self-image was pretty low, and he didn't feel competent socially," Counsilman says. "We had to restore his confidence. But it was easy. Everybody liked him. Eventually he was elected co-captain."

Spitz says that Counsilman made him "more friendly."

"Mark was a very private person," says Counsilman. "At the same time, he was very direct. His candor was such that it was almost naiveté. And he'd been burned by that. When he was relaxed, he was one of the boys, but if a reporter came in, he'd clam up and be a different person. Of course he's long since mellowed, as he's become secure."

At last comfortable with his team, Spitz prepared for 1972 with ferocious purpose. "In swimming, my aggressiveness wasn't always visible," he says. "You couldn't see my face in the water."

But you could see the records falling. "My talent was that I never died [at the end of a race]," says Spitz. "The problem was in getting out fast enough. That was due to training for a lot of events."

He struck the ideal balance, of course, in Munich. He won the 200 free and the 100 fly and the 200 fly. Strong teammates helped him to golds in the 4 X 100 and 4 X 200 freestyle relays and the 4 X 100 medley relay. Only one event figured to be close, the 100 free against a field that included Jerry Heidenreich of Dallas.

Spitz, for a time, didn't want to swim that race. Always a great prerace worrier, he complained of a sore back and talked of withdrawing. On the pool deck minutes before the race, he said to ABC's Donna de Varona, "I know I say I don't want to swim before every event but this time I'm serious. If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure." Spitz won by half a stroke in a world-record 51.22. Perfection was preserved.

The night after his last race, while Spitz slept, Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic Village, killed two Israelis and took nine more hostages, who later were murdered. U.S. officials thought that Spitz, who is Jewish, might be a target and rushed him back home.

He went right into a life of commercials and appearances for companies like Schick and Arena swimwear and for the West Coast milk industry. In the ensuing year, as the poster of Spitz decked out in his star-spangled Olympic swim-suit and his seven golds became omnipresent, Spitz didn't exactly alienate the public, but neither did he charm it. "Did athletics prepare me to live in society?" he says. "No, because athletics is selfish. Coaches and parents are a support group for your performance. When you go to work, suddenly you're alone and you have to be a better communicator. I wasn't prepared to do that."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6