Swimmers have always been inhospitable to hair, accepting on faith the dogma that anybody who shears himself from head to toe before a big race will slip through water like ball bearings over oil. Now comes Mark Spitz (opposite), the world's leading swimmer, sowing doubt. Not even so major a competition as last week's U.S. Olympic Trials in Chicago could induce Spitz to part with his mustache, which he affected, he said forthrightly, "Because it looks pretty good on me." Spitz offered a further explanation over lunch in the revolving restaurant atop the Regency Hyatt, a futuristic hotel with a facade of roughly the same burnished-copper hue as his own rakish features. "The mustache also helps my swimming," he insisted. "It catches the water and keeps it out of my mouth."
It no doubt speaks more for his talent than for his grasp of hydrodynamics, but Spitz performed at the trials as if his rivals were so many barbers in pursuit. On four successive nights he plunged into the Portage Park pool, a municipally-owned facility in a blue-collar neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side, and four times he climbed out a winner, mustache wet and bristling. He broke two of the three individual world records he already held and added a fourth. Counting relays, he qualified for seven events at Munich, a burden that unavoidably invited comparison with 1968. In that Olympic year, a gifted but inexperienced Mark Spitz brashly predicted he would win six gold medals in Mexico City, then settled for a comparatively meager haul of two golds (both in relays), a silver and a bronze.
Now 22 and bound for Indiana University's dental school, Spitz has ripened into the sport's most dashing figure. Neither blond nor bland, as swimmers are so often stereotyped, but looking like a Jewish incarnation of—you should pardon the expression—Omar Sharif, he was set upon at Portage Park by swarms of teeny-swimmers, few of them old enough to borrow the family station wagon. He was also besieged by reporters loaded with here-we-go-again questions about how he would fare in Munich. "I'll just try to do the best I can," he answered during one such encounter, his upper lip as stiff as it was luxuriant. Then he headed for the exit, only to meet the usual pack of squealing girls. "You know," he complained as he paused to sign an autograph, "my head's under a lot of pressure."
The trials produced, in all, 12 world records, and the 51 member team includes other celebrated veterans who will be feeling some of the same pressure as Spitz. Among the men, for example, there is Spitz' co-captain last season at Indiana, versatile Gary Hall, a silver medalist at Mexico City who qualified in Chicago for three events, improving his own world mark in the 400-meter individual medley (4:30.81) and tying Gunnar Larsson's 200-meter medley record (2:09.3). Then there were those who might not be able to grow a mustache if they tried, younger fellows like 16-year-old Rick DeMont, a sudden sensation in the 1,500, who convincingly overpowered Mike Burton and John Kinsella, who placed one-two in Mexico City.
The results at Portage Park pointed to another strong Olympic showing by American men, and there was reason to be optimistic that the women might do better than previously expected, too. Hope was kindled by a wave of talented youngsters utterly unawed by Australia's Shane Gould, who held every world freestyle record before the U.S. women went to work. Led by a couple of 15-year-old schoolgirls, Shirley Babashoff and Jo Harshbarger, the women shattered two of Shane's records and left two others tottering precariously, an affront witnessed by Gould's coach, Forbes Carlile. Stopping off en route to Munich to cover the U.S. trials for the
Sydney Sunday Telegraph, Carlile admitted to being "apprehensive," then added with a coy smile, "Of course, it's not unreasonable to assume that Shane will be improved in Munich, too."
The assault on the record book began, suitably, with Spitz, winner of last year's Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. No sooner did Mark arrive in Chicago, birthplace of Johnny Weissmuller, than he started making like the latter's spiritual descendant by twice smashing the 200-meter butterfly record of West Germany's Hans Fassnacht—first in a preliminary and then with a 2:01.53 clocking in the evening final. (Spiritual in the record-breaking sense, that is; the butterfly wasn't invented when Weissmuller swam.) Bigger things were almost sure to follow, since Spitz has always enjoyed the 200 butterfly less than his three other specialties. By no coincidence, this is also the event that requires the hardest work—something that has not always been Spitz' forte.
"I sometimes just go through the motions at workouts," he admitted, "but that's usually because I want the coach to baby me that day or something." After Fassnacht's record fell, Spitz rushed up to Sherm Chavoor, his coach at Sacramento's Arden Hills Swim Club, and said, "Well, I guess I accomplished something this summer after all." Chavoor laughed. "You accomplished a good suntan, Buster," he said. "Just think how much better you might have done if you'd have worked."
Spitz next won the 200 freestyle with a clocking just eight one-hundredths of a second above his world record of 1:53.5, then lowered his marks in both the 100 butterfly (to 54.56) and 100 freestyle (51.47). In the 200 freestyle, the only event in which he failed to reward the crowd's chant of "Go! Go! Go!" with a world record, Spitz lifted his head out of the water for a couple of look-sees, his curiosity disrupting his rhythm. If Spitz sometimes seemed to be playing in the pool, he was equally sportive when he and Steve Genter, a UCLA senior who joined him on the Olympic squad in the 200 freestyle—three finishers were selected in almost every event—faced the press.
The fast-improving Genter, who qualified in the 400 freestyle as well, was distinguishable from Spitz as the gangly one who had shaved not only his face but his entire head. He also commanded attention for his well-choreographed sequence of shakes and shimmies on the starting block, a devil's dance meant to please the crowd, relax himself and, if possible, unnerve the opposition. "I'm hyperkinetic," Genter explained, tossing a huge grin Spitz' way. When asked whether his rival's manic prerace routine bothered him, it was Spitz' turn to laugh. "At least I've got some hair," he said, reaching over and pinching Genter's exposed scalp. "Hey, doesn't that hurt?" he asked. Genter grinned again.
But if Spitz sometimes acted cavalier in public, he seemed in need of reassurance as he and Chavoor drove off for dinner later that evening. "Was it clear-cut that I won?" he demanded from the back seat, suffusing the interior of the car with dark clouds of anxiety. A moment later he asked, "How many times did I look around?" Then: "Do you think Genter will improve when we get to Munich?" By the time he reached the restaurant, Spitz had regained his sense of self. "I felt great in the pool tonight," he said. "At 125 meters I looked over and I saw nobody. I had clear water. I wondered where they all were. That's why I looked around. I probably lost two-tenths of a second."