A pack of French journalists tried to follow Mark Spitz (see cover) into a shower in Munich's Olympic Schwimmhalle the other afternoon, but the American swimmer managed to close the door just ahead of his pursuers, demonstrating that he is capable of moving fast on land, too. Spitz also proved elusive when neither he nor any of his late-sleeping teammates arrived on schedule at a morning press conference for the U.S. swim team, leaving it to the American coaches, themselves a few minutes tardy, to pacify the swarm of reporters.
The coaches were willing, but they suffered from the shared disadvantage of not being Mark Andrew Spitz. "We came here to see Mr. Spitz," an Australian reporter said with annoyance, and it was easy to appreciate the importance he attached to the mission. Mark Spitz is questing for seven Olympic gold medals—four in individual races and three in relays—and if his efforts come close to that high aim he will be one of the grandest of all Olympic heroes. It was, furthermore, ironic that Spitz, a Jew, should be seeking so lofty a triumph at the first Olympics held on German soil since the Nazi-tainted games of 1936 in Berlin.
Spitz' credentials include world records in each of the four individual events—the 100 and 200 meters in both freestyle and butterfly—he is swimming in Munich, but there remained the question, essentially the same one asked about Tom Eagleton, of whether he was psychologically fit for the job. There were memories of the Mexico Games of 1968 when Spitz freely talked about winning as many as six gold medals but then, suffering from turista, tonsilitis and an Olympic-size case of the jitters, ended with only two golds (both won in relays) plus a silver and a bronze for finishing second and third in individual races. It was a medal haul that would have been prodigious for almost anybody else, but for Spitz it was failure.
In Munich, Spitz began splendidly, winning the 200 butterfly and anchoring the 400 freestyle relay, both in world-record time, but the way ahead was difficult. His most obvious rival was Australia's Mike Wenden, a bank personnel officer who has become a husband and father since winning the 100 and 200 freestyle in Mexico. If Spitz could hold off Wenden and other challengers, his life could change overnight. He might not follow Johnny Weissmuller into Tarzan's tree, but his slender, walnut-brown good looks, enhanced by emerald-green eyes and a devilish mustache, would put his box-office appeal up there with Jean-Claude Killy or Peggy Fleming any day. After the Games, Spitz is supposed to enroll in Indiana University's dental school, but when talk turned to the temptations of Hollywood, he did nothing to discourage it. "I suppose I could always postpone dental school for a year," he said. "If everything goes the way I plan this week, I may need a bodyguard."
Not long ago such remarks would have been interpreted as cockiness, but Spitz is no doubt right when he says, "Now that I'm a veteran, people have learned to accept me the way I am." At 22, his 6' frame, which formerly seemed like a rubber band snapping its way through the water, has fleshed out to a supple 170 pounds, and his personality has added dimension, too. He no longer falls so strongly under the influence of his father, an aggressive man who placed great premium on winning. Mark's teammates at Sacramento's Arden Hills Swim Club were surprised—and so, doubtlessly, was Arnold Spitz—when the son upbraided the father at poolside this summer for what Mark considered some excessive parental interference in the swimming program of his younger sister, Nancy.
But it would be a mistake to overstate the changes in Mark Spitz, for he was probably never as much of a spoiled brat as he was pictured, nor could he be passed off today as altogether lovable. His only real sin in Mexico City was his brutal honesty. "Mark said he thought he'd win his races, and he was wrong," says Sherm Chavoor, who trains Spitz at Arden Hills and now coaches the Olympic women's team. "It's as simple as that." Spitz has retained his honesty but, benefiting from experience, he was not as eager before Munich—publicly anyway—to make any Mexico-like predictions of total victory.
Certainly it was a more circumspect Mark Spitz who, along with a few other U.S. swimmers, finally showed up 40 minutes late to join the coaches at the press conference in the Schwimmhalle. "I swam well at the Olympic Trials in Chicago," Spitz said as Japanese cameramen swooped in around him. "If I do my best here..." he started to say and then caught himself. Instead, he said simply, "I'm prepared." Later, sitting in his room in the Olympic Village, his stockinged feet propped on a radiator, Spitz said, "If this were '68, I probably would've told those reporters, "The competition isn't as strong in the 100 fly as in the freestyles." And you know what the headlines would have said? They would have said Mark Spitz predicts victory in the 100 fly."
Spitz was also getting along better with his Olympic teammates. He was 18 in Mexico, just out of high school, and the older U.S. swimmers, instead of befriending him, dismissed him as too self-centered. "This is a much closer-knit group," Spitz said last week. He went off one day with teammate Gary Hall to watch the burghers of Munich downing their morning beer at the Hofbr�uhaus ("It isn't even noon yet!"), to take in one of the city's plentiful sex bazaars ("Do you believe this place?") and to wander through the village with other U.S. swimmers, turning a long, slow eye on every pretty skirt that fluttered by. Visiting the Olympic Village showrooms of athletic-shoe manufacturers, he was careful to take along lesser-known teammates, who usually ended up getting free shoes. "When you walk in with Mark Spitz," explained Steve Furniss, "you can bet they'll wait on you."
At other times, though, Spitz could be thoughtlessly harsh. When word reached him that teammate Steve Genter, a rival in the 200 freestyle with whom he had become friendly in recent weeks, had suffered a collapsed lung that would almost certainly diminish his performance at the Games, Spitz said, "This may sound terrible, but now I don't have to worry about him." More understandable was his occasional brusqueness to some of the 4,000 newsmen whose requests for "just a five-minute interview" would have kept him busy, had all been granted, through the '76 Games in Montreal.
Even at that, Spitz was far more accessible to reporters and autograph hunters than Shane Gould, the Australian schoolgirl with whom he shares the swimming limelight. Gould is also attempting seven races, having added the 200 individual medley to the four freestyles and two relays she originally planned on. She won the medley, and her first gold, in world-record time on Monday. Not yet 16, Gould seemed remarkably unaffected by Olympic pressures, spending most of her spare time reading Sherlock Holmes. "It's strange," she said last week, "but I'm not even excited yet."