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The famous seven Olympic gold medals have been in a Los Angeles bank vault ever since Mark Spitz returned from Munich four years ago. He has taken them out twice for photography sessions, each from its white box with the interlocked Olympic rings on the cover. There are 11 such cases in the bank's deposit box, a very snug fit, he says: the seven 1972 gold medals, and the two golds he won in Mexico City in 1968 along with a silver and a bronze. He wore the seven 1972 medals for the most popular poster ever done of an athlete—the medals carefully arranged on his bare chest, which, together with the mustache, the smile and the pale eyes, combined to induce one million-plus sales. "The medals weighed a lot," Spitz says. "They have heavy, crazy chains. Really, it was hard to stand up straight wearing them all at one time."
At present Spitz is a young man who has a lot of trouble making up his mind about anything, and one of his minor problems has been what to do with his medals. He admires Gary Hall, his Olympic roommate in 1972, for deciding to put his collection under a glass top in an end table. "But the trouble is that someone could come into his apartment, see that table at the end of the sofa and carry the whole thing off," Spitz says. "What then?"
Spitz and his young wife Suzy are about to shift residences from an apartment in a condominium complex in Marina del Rey, Calif. to a home in West-wood, and he has an idea about his medals. What he would like to do is set them in a glass wall between the dining room and den of his new house. "The glass would be bulletproof so that anybody wanting to get at my medals would have to jackhammer them out. Or blow up the house," he says dramatically.
Then he shakes his head. "The trouble is that if we ever moved again, I'd have to take the whole wall with me. They tell me that the wall would cost $3,000 to build and even more to take down and reinstall; besides, bulletproof glass that thick gels green and no one could see the medals anyway."
Spitz has solved the trophy problem in his present apartment by having very few around. The dominant decorative items are big stuffed animals. They sit on chairs, and a gallery of koala bears and a Pooh look down from the top of a dresser in the bedroom. Indeed, the only trophies on obvious display are three big pewter tankards for high-place finishes with his sailing sloop, Sumark 7. He is very proud of the mugs since they epitomize what Spitz feels strongly about himself—the unabashed notion that he can succeed brilliantly at whatever he decides to do. In the course of a few minutes' monologue he will announce that he could become a tournament-class golfer if he put his mind to it (though the last time out on a course, he admits ruefully, he hacked around and could not break 100); he says that he can serve a tennis ball as hard as any professional on the tour; he is positive he could rank high in yachting circles; he even thinks he might have picked up yet another gold medal at Munich if he had entered the 400-meter freestyle. After all, as he points out, though it would have required racing three times in one day, he did hold the world record for the event.
What is odd is that despite his jaunty self-assurance Spitz has absolutely no idea what he wants to do. He talks vaguely about attending to his "business arrangements"—fulfilling contracts with firms whose products range from sportswear to swimming goggles. He has applied to dental school and been accepted, but no one thinks he will actually attend. His friends urge him to stick close to swimming and the world that made him famous—coaching or starting up a swim school. Spitz listens politely, but he does not commit himself. He says he likes to sit in the evening with his young wife and gaze out beyond the shingled roofs of their condominium neighbors and watch airliners on their flight patterns in and out of Los Angeles.
"That's true," a friend says. "He sits around. The Olympics would screw up anybody, and he's no exception. He doesn't fit in the Jet Set that swings around the marinas. He puts on jeans and with Suzy we all go over to a pizza joint on Sepulveda Avenue. He likes the pizza-joint adulation. They know him there. Sometimes we take an eight-foot-wing-span, radio-controlled glider to a hill near the marina. It's great to watch him fly the glider in the currents coming off the ridge. It's as if his knowledge of the water has shown him the way to move through air. He can bring the glider to him like a hawk to a wrist."
Spitz seems most at ease talking about swimming, especially the technical aspects. He speaks of fluid mechanics, says such things as "faster repetition does not mean faster speed." He stands up in his living room and shows how his legs hyperextend, the lower part of each bowing back like a double-jointed appendage, which gives him a whippier and deeper kick in the water. His hands are enormous. "Big paddles," he says. But when he gets away from the technical aspects, the equivocation begins: "The great thing about being a competitive swimmer is that you know it's going to end quickly. When you're 23, you quit. But what a price I paid for all that work. There is something very depressing about being the best in the world at something. I was programmed for all those years. I swam 2� hours in the morning and two in the evening, maybe seven miles a day for six years, and during all those hours I'd think about getting out of the pool at the end of the session and how pleasant that was going to be. I loved to think about getting out. But I became the best in the world. When I got off the awards stand after the seventh gold medal, my teammates picked me up and carried me around on their shoulders. I'd gained their respect. You couldn't say it was a fluke. That's why I'm so happy.
"Since then I've thought it over very carefully. Because of swimming, I am my own boss, on my own time, with self-respect for what I've done, money for my labor, and prestige. But then from time to time I'm not sure. If I hadn't put all the work into winning those medals, I'd be a doctor. But if I'd been a doctor, I wouldn't have won those medals and I might be a frustrated doctor." He turns up his enormous hands and looks at them. "I guess that's the price no matter what. Frustration. You never know. You always wonder."
He is 10 pounds heavier now, wincing as he admits it. "I weighed 175 in Munich. I was such a fine-tuned instrument then; now I'm out of tune—a big, out-of-tune bass fiddle."