Seven Golds & Seven WR: Mark Spitz
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.
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.