But not impossible. "A lot of masters swimmers do beat their old bests, but it's usually those who didn't train properly as kids," adds Counsilman. "Modern weight training gets them stronger, and better stroke mechanics let them go faster. At 22, even Mark was just starting to get strong. He was still improving. It's an old wives' tale that swimmers mature early. I think they can get better into their 30's, but they can't make a living in swimming, so there is no incentive to continue the way runners do."
Spitz has been moved by the positive response that his comeback has prompted. A little puzzled by it too. He says, "Maybe I'm representing all those couch potatoes who say, 'I should get off my butt and lose 10 pounds.' "
"Everyone our age is so excited," says Wallace. "It is a vicarious recapturing of youth. It's baby boomers declaring we're not going to be swept away by 17-year-old punk rockers."
Spitz's 54.27 of 1972 would have placed him sixth in last year's nationals and eighth at the Seoul Olympics, but Ballatore believes it will take a race in the low 53-second range to make the '92 team. Imagining what it would be like to actually reach Barcelona, Spitz gets wound up. "I'll be almost twice as old as the guys in the other lanes," he says. "It's so damn unique. It'd be a feat beyond the seven gold medals."
Does this sound like a man who had to be talked into returning? "Maybe I was missing something," he says when pressed. "I got myself involved in those conversations that pushed me back in the pool. Maybe my ego was so polished that I couldn't admit to myself that I wasn't content."
Of course there is another side to all this wild premeditation. Spitz may put in three years of hard work and not make the Olympics. "And it's not like being 18 and saying, 'Well, next year I'll be stronger,' " he says. "Time is not on my side."
Then he says something he wouldn't have said when he was 18. "Three years from now, it will have been worth it. Even if I lose. Because I will have made the attempt."
It takes a moment to dawn. Spitz is finally a true Olympian, after all these years.