There is a special kind of shark that is regarded as one of the greatest of all time. No, no, I do not mean something like a great white whale or a bull shark. I am referring to Mark the pool shark, who won nine Olympic golds and set 33 world records during his career as a swimmer. Mark Spitz was undoubtedly considered the greatest American swimmer in history before the awesomeness of Michael Phelps rang through many years later. At the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Spitz set a standard for all swimmers who followed down the years, and it wasn’t an easy one to reach. This takes nothing away from any Olympic swimmers, who must have been quite extraordinary to even be Olympians in the first place.
Mark Spitz was a bit of a star from his early swimming days. He broke the US age 9-10 record, and by the age of 14, he was already training alongside Olympic champions in 1964. Please don’t ask me what I was doing at that age. Moving on, three years later, in 1967, he claimed a record five gold medals at the Pan American Games. It seemed there was no slowing down for the prodigy, but then, life always finds a way to challenge us in shocking ways.
Going into the 1968 Summer Olympics, Spitz was confident and wasn’t shy to display this. He boldly made it known that he was going to win six gold medals. Before this point, the highest number of swimming gold medals won by one athlete in the same Olympics was four. Spitz had already set seven world records in three different swimming events the year before, so he was expectant. This kind of talk can put one’s competitors on edge, but it only eventually seemed to put the pressure on Spitz himself. At the end of the games, the eighteen-year-old Spitz had won only two gold medals, and they were relay medals. He was not able to win any individual titles, but he did win a silver medal in the 100m butterfly and a bronze medal in the 100m freestyle.
While this would not be considered a bad outing for many other athletes, for Spitz, it must have been a disappointing reality to handle.
He was still young and could aim to correct his errors at the next Olympics. Spitz then went to Indiana University to train under the tutelage of Doc Counsilman, who was also his Olympic coach in 1968. As a collegiate athlete, his brilliance shone. In 1969, freshmen had just been allowed to compete at the NCAA Championships, and Spitz took advantage of the new rule. He won three individual titles, the 100m butterfly, 200m freestyle, and 500m freestyle. He would go on to win eight individual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles between 1969 and 1972. His brilliance was recognised, and Spitz was named Swimming World’s World Swimmer of the Year in 1969 and 1971. By the time he graduated in 1972, he was ready for the Munich Olympic Games.
Going into these games, he was expected to dominate like he had been doing the previous years, but the pressure he put on himself the last time probably made him a little cautious about making predictions. Letting his swimming do the talking, Spitz won his first medal in the 200m butterfly. This was his first individual Olympic gold medal, and he did it in style, in a world record time of 2 minutes and 0.70 seconds. This was over 12 seconds faster than he had gone in 1968. Later that evening, he anchored the United States’ 4x100m relay team to a gold medal in a world record time of 3 minutes 36.42 seconds. The US team, which comprised David Edgar, John Murphy, Jerry Heidenreich and Spitz finished over three seconds ahead of the Soviets, who placed second. With this brilliant start to his campaign at the games, the only way was up.
He won his third gold medal in the 200m freestyle in another world record. His teammate, Steve Genter, led into the final length of this race, but Spitz finished well to claim the win. It was now three finals, three gold medals. There was a bit of controversy during the medal ceremony after the race. Spitz, who wasn’t fully dressed, ran onto the podium with his shoes in his hands. He dropped them when the US anthem played but picked them up after the anthem and waved to the crowd. Such promotion of a shoe brand was not normally allowed, so the Soviets complained that he had broken the rules. How could it be proven that his actions were promoting anything? It couldn’t, and rightly so, the complaint was rejected by the IOC. The shoes were by no means new ones anyway. His actions were just an innocent string of actions, nothing more. There were two days of rest before the 100m fly.
In the 100m butterfly, he set another world record and won his fourth gold medal. This record in the 100m butterfly went on to last five years and was the longest surviving world record he set at these games. The butterfly was what was considered his signature event, but he clearly was no slouch in the freestyle. An hour after winning the previous race, he anchored the US team in the 4x200m freestyle relay to another gold medal and another world record. ...Five gold medals, five world records, four days.
His next race was the 100m freestyle, and he was nervous about it. Spitz had qualified third going into the final and would have to face his teammate, Jerry Heidenreich. Jerry Heidenreich was in good form at the games, and Spitz didn’t want to risk losing to him and spoiling a perfect winning record. He could still get his six golds by racing with the relay team and pulling out of this race. He felt it was better to pull out than be beaten.
Where was this nervousness before the previous games eh? Sometimes, to fire oneself up it does take a little bit of fear, or should I say concern, if fear seems too negative. He eventually did race after Don Gambril, the Assistant US Olympic coach, gave him one of those types of talks we see in films. Spitz attacked the race and made Heidenreich chase him. He won in another world record while Heidenreich finished in second place. This was Spitz’s sixth gold medal. Imagine the relief he must have felt. He had matched his 1968 prediction. He, therefore, beat the medal record held by Nedo Nadi, the Italian fencer who won five gold medals at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics Games. His last medal came in the 4x100m medley relay, which was the last swimming event of the Olympic programme. After the first leg, the East Germans were clearly in the lead after Roland Matthes equalled his own world record in an amazing backstroke leg.
Tom Bruce of the US managed to close down that advantage and draw equal with the East Germans on the second leg. He handed over to Mark Spitz, who was to swim the butterfly leg in the race. Spitz’s class roared through as he created a two body-length lead for his team. After Spitz’s leg, the Americans were in a world of their own. Jerry Heidenreich anchored on the freestyle leg while the other teams fought for the silver medal. The team won in another world record by almost four seconds from the East Germans in second. After this win, Spitz teammates went around the pool carrying him on their shoulders as they celebrated their victory. Spitz’s triumph was complete, seven golds and seven world records. No other swimmer had done this before.
Altogether, between the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, Spitz won nine golds, one silver and one bronze. For many years no one could beat Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympic Games. It wasn’t until 2008 that Michael Phelps equalled and surpassed Spitz’s medal mark. Phelps won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.
Spitz’s last medal came on the evening before tragedy struck with what was the beginning of what we know as the Munich Massacre. All Jewish athletes were placed under guard after Palestinian terrorists abducted israeli athletes and officials at the Olympic village. Spitz left Munich early as it was feared that he could be targeted as he was a prominent Jew. The abduction affected the rest of the games in a really bad way after the Israelis were killed.
On his return to the United States, Spitz received a well-deserved hero’s welcome. Though he was initially supposed to go to Dental School at the University of South Carolina, he decided to do other things with his now boosted profile. He gave up his amateur status and effectively retired, still just 22. He was recognised as a sex symbol with his good looks and the endorsement contracts began to roll in. He briefly went into acting, but that didn’t last long. Nonetheless, he was able to make a fortune in the two years after his Olympic triumphs and remain a public figure.
All those who have tried to do something remarkable and then fallen short know how it feels to have doubts lurking at the back of their minds. Spitz’s story, even with its glory and success, is one that embraces the statement, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Excellence and greatness require effort but more importantly, they transcend time. Even though Spitz’s records have been broken, the brilliance of his achievements are not outshone by whatever other great things may have happened after his time. There is enough space for more than one great and Mark Spitz firmly occupies one of the spots.
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