Mark Spitz swam as if something was chasing him. In a sense, something was, even and perhaps most notably during a four-year period of world domination. Just 18 when he qualified for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Spitz was already one of swimming’s most accomplished performers, his resume packed with age-group world records, AAU titles and Pan-American and Maccabiah Games medals. He was perceived as a bit boastful, but not totally unrealistic when he suggested he just might leave Mexico with six gold medals.
He won two, and that segment of the swimming world that had been put off by Spitz’s self-assurance snickered. The gold medals came in freestyle relays, at 4-by-100 and 4-by-200 meters, so Spitz could only claim one-quarter credit. His individual haul: a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly, a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. Anyone — a teenager, no less — who could be disappointed by winning four Olympic medals in one year was dealing with unfathomably high expectations. Spitz was on both counts — he had set the bar well beyond the reach of even Bob Seagren, who cleared 17 feet, 8 ½ inches to win gold in the pole vault in 1968.
“The worst meet of my life,” Spitz grumbled upon leaving Mexico City. He vowed to make amends.
Indiana University turned out to be the bridge between the meet Spitz labeled the worst of his life and the clear-cut best meet of anyone’s life until Michael Phelps came along 36 years later.
James “Doc” Counsilman, who built Indiana’s swimming program into a national powerhouse, was the coach of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. The outspoken, free-spirited Spitz epitomized California cool to the fatherly Midwesterner, but Counsilman took a liking to him, and the feeling was mutual. Indiana, Spitz decided, offered him the best opportunity to maintain his conditioning and improve upon his world-class form between Olympiads, so he accepted Counsilman’s offer to enroll and compete for the Hoosiers.
“He’s a handful,” Counsilman warned his other swimmers, “but give him a chance.”
They did, and by his senior year Spitz was an Indiana co-captain. Teammates and fellow competitors were more amused than put off by his ego.
“I like Mark,” said Dave Edgar, a rival from Tennessee. “He talks about himself a lot, but that’s all people ever ask him about.”
Moreover, there was no denying Spitz’s talent. In addition to dominating the Big Ten, he won eight NCAA individual championships and helped the Hoosiers win four straight NCAA team titles. By the time the 1972 Munich Olympics rolled around, Spitz was primed to fulfill those goals he had spoken of four years earlier, this time with considerably less fanfare.
“I swam well at the Olympic trials,” he said. “I’m prepared.”
He was prepared to make history. Spitz competed in seven events at Mexico City. He not only won gold medals in each, he set world records in the 100-meter freestyle, the 200-meter freestyle, the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter butterfly, as well as the 4-by-100-meter relay, the 4-by-200-meter relay and the medley relay. He set a standard for Olympic achievement that was unsurpassed until Phelps took over in Beijing 36 years later.
Ego? Spitz was among the first to offer congratulations.
Sadly, the Munich Games are best remembered for an attack by Palestinian terrorists that claimed the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and shattered forever the Olympic illusion of the world coming together in peace for the sake of sport, for honest and noble competition that celebrates effort and achievement. The Games went on, but they would never be the same. Since 1972, security has been a prominent, almost stifling presence at each Olympiad, a grim reminder that not even sport is immune from the pressures and tensions that divide the world’s citizens.
Spitz, a Jew, was rushed out of Munich immediately after the attack, out of concern that he might have been a high-profile target. He eventually returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States, where his stunning performance helped offset the crushing disappointment American Olympians had suffered in basketball, boxing and track and field in ‘72.
Between 1968 and 1972, Mark Spitz won nine Olympic gold medals, five Pan-American Games gold medals, 31 AAU titles and eight NCAA titles. He set 33 world records. He was World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972. He won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year award in 1972. He was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Indiana University Hall of Fame in 1982, and he became a charter member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.
Spitz finally outswam the memory of his 1968 disappointment. In doing so he showed the world what a truly great, truly committed athlete can achieve.