There are three reasons why Spitz's aspirations are not absurd. One, he has maintained his speed, or at least he had through 1984. Shortly before Rowdy Gaines won the '84 Olympic 100-meter freestyle, Spitz, then 34, defeated him in three of five practice 50 frees. "I was faster than ever because I was just naturally stronger than I was at 22," says Spitz. "Looking at my frame at 22, I think I may have retired prematurely."
Two, to prepare for one event—the 100 fly—Spitz will have to train about half as much as he did for his slate of seven in 1972.
And, three, he may have an anatomical advantage. Because his knees hyper-extend, he gets incredible depth and leverage when he does a butterfly kick.
Last month Spitz went to UCLA coach Ron Ballatore, who blended Spitz right into the UCLA team workouts. "Amazingly, I wasn't Tail-end Charlie," says Spitz. "We did a 500-meter kick and I fell behind, but after 300 we switched to fly kick and all of a sudden I caught up and finished with the group. I was inspired."
He wasn't the only one. "He still has great technique in butterfly and freestyle," says Ballatore. "He rides so well in the water. He's only 10 pounds heavier than in 1972. The thing to do first is get him into aerobic condition without getting him hurt. He won't need to do all the volume the team does. If we swim 20 100's, he'll skip every fifth one. It will be interesting to see how he responds."
If Spitz trains through the autumn and tapers with the team as he plans, his first races are some months away. But on just his second day back in training with a bunch of college kids he is clearly a man in his element. Only goggles, which were outlawed when he raced, are unfamiliar. As Spitz makes a butterfly turn, Ballatore calls out, "O.K., Mark, touch with both hands."
"Hey, Coach," comes the voice back across the water, "I've never done an honest turn in a workout, ever."
"See," yells one of the varsity swimmers, "he does it too."
The scene seems extraordinary. Could a runner, say a miler, laze around for 17 years and hop into a top college interval workout? Hardly. He would probably stagger into the infield and throw up after his first quarter. Swimmers are mysteriously different, and the most eerily so is Spitz.
"He never drank or smoked, and he watches his health to the point of hypochondria," says Counsilman. "But if he gets faster than he was in 1972, it will be phenomenal."