He is only 21 years old, yet it sometimes seems that Mark Spitz took over where Johnny Weissmuller left off. Last week he was at it again, winning four events and setting two world records at the national AAU championships in Houston, and longtime Spitz watchers said it was the most amazing performance of an amazing career. At the least, it reestablished Spitz as the cynosure of American swimming, earned him a spot on the U.S. team which left after the meet to tour East Germany and Russia and reinforced the opinion that he is our best bet for a bunch of gold medals at Munich.
When Spitz first showed up at Houston's Glenbrook Olympic Pool, it was obvious he was ready for a big meet. All summer he had been training uncommonly hard at the Arden Hills Swim Club in Sacramento. "I'm in the best condition of my life," he said. His attitude was even more improved. Gone were the last traces of the scowling, temperamental child; here was a smiling young man who was confident to the point of serenity.
"I don't get too nervous anymore," said Spitz, who won his first national title at age 16. "Now when I get up on the starting blocks I stay calm. I concentrate on a piece of weed in the water, or something like that."
All week the temperature in Houston was in the high 80s and low 90s, and the humidity was so oppressive that the swimmers were reluctant to leave the water, which was kept at 78� by 175 tons of special cooling equipment. On successive nights Spitz won the 100-meter butterfly, the 200 freestyle, the 200 butterfly and the 100 freestyle. In a qualifying heat he broke his own world record in the 100 butterfly with a time of 0:55.01. "I'm really happy," he said. "I've been after that record ever since I set it three years ago."
Even more impressive was his performance in the 200 butterfly. On the morning of the race he informed his parents, "I feel tired, I stayed up last night and I don't like this event, anyway." So he went out and qualified with a worldrecord 2:03.91. That night he broke the record again with a come-from-behind victory over Gary Hall, his Indiana University teammate. With less than 25 meters to go, Spitz seemed beaten, but he put his head down and caught Hall in the last split second. Hall's 2:03.91 tied the record Spitz had set in the morning, but Spitz did 2:03.89. "I still don't like it," he said.
Almost as impressive as Spitz' exploits was the showing made by the swimmers who represented the U.S. in the Pan-American Games earlier in the month. These were the "second-stringers," so called because many of our top swimmers—including Spitz, Hall, Debbie Meyer and John Kinsella—declined to compete in Cali, preferring to stay home, train for the AAU meet and shoot for the more desirable trip to Europe.
"We knew they were calling us the second string and that gave us incentive," said Backstroker Charlie Campbell. "We were really close at the Pan-Am Games, all stuck together 14 in a room, and we've stayed close here. We kind of grew up on the trip. And you notice that some of the guys who stayed here aren't going to Russia."
Campbell won the 200 backstroke at Houston while Mel Nash, another Pan-Am swimmer, took the 100 backstroke. (Asked if he could speak Russian, Nash said, "No, but my sister can, can I take her along?") Rick Colella of the Pan-Am team won the 200 breaststroke, and Tom McBreen, another Cali veteran, upset Kinsella, Mike Burton and Hans Fassnacht to win the 400 freestyle in 4:02.1—a world record.
McBreen, 18, is an erudite pre-med major at USC who calls almost every adult male "sir" and who enjoys reading (last week, Man's Search for Himself by Rollo May). He also is so nearsighted that he didn't believe his world record until Frank Heckl, another USC pre-med major who won six gold medals at Cali, handed him his glasses so he could see the scoreboard.
Not to be outdone, the Pan-Am girls picked up their share of medals. Ann Simmons, 18, upset Debbie Meyer and Nancy Spitz (Mark's sister, as she is always introduced) in the 400 freestyle. Deena Deardruff, 14, won the 100 butterfly and Cathy Calhoun, 13, swam the 1,500 in 17:19.2 to break Debbie's world record. "I got a little tight near the end," said the eighth-grader-to-be.