He needed time for his relaxed self to soften his competitive self. Instead, he came across as one-dimensional, fixated on reducing everything to winning. Gradually, sponsors lost interest. By then he was comfortably set for life, yet the shape of that life was unclear.
"What would I do differently?" he says. "I'd be more decisive. I would commit to something wholly. In business, where I divided my time among family, friends and agents, I compromised. I played it safe."
He leaves the impression he was adrift, compassless. But Spitz's last 17 years have hardly been wasted. In 1973 he married Suzy Weiner. Their son, Matthew, is now eight, and swimming is about his fifth favorite sport, which is fine with Mark. Mark's businesses have kept his family prosperous. He has good friends, to whom he is loyal. The only thing lacking, one feels, is something difficult, taxing.
After he cut himself off from swimming, in 1972, Spitz says, he experienced no regrets: "I left the Olympics at the top of the sport with not a thing left undone. I've never even had a desire to try masters' swimming. Whenever getting back in the pool was mentioned, I'd say, 'Why mess with history?' "
In the last several months, however, Spitz found the subject bobbing up insistently. "I bumped into Lance Larson [who was second in the 1960 Olympic 100 free] and he said he was swimming masters and was going faster now than he did in the '60s, though in different events. He told me a lot of guys were."
Then Mark Wallace, an old friend who was student manager of the Indiana swim team, pointed out to Spitz that record times had dropped dramatically in every event—except the 100 fly. Spitz's Munich best was 54.27. The present world record of 52.84 was set by Pablo Morales in 1986.
In April, Spitz took his son to play basketball at a West L.A. recreation center and noticed a flurry of activity in the swimming pool. "Guys my age and younger," Spitz says. "Five or six to a lane. They looked good. The coach said they were swimming fast and encouraged me to get in."
Spitz edged away from that pool, but he talked again with Wallace, saying, "I'm getting the idea here that I can do an hour a day and be competitive in the 100 fly."
"Well, what are you going to do?" asked Wallace.
"Exactly what I just did," said Spitz. "Just talking."