His name consistently turns up on every list of the greatest athletic feats ever accomplished, and yet many people know little or nothing about Mark Spitz.
Chances are they recognize the name, but it takes a much deeper dive to understand the uniqueness of what Spitz accomplished as the greatest swimmer ever.
1972 Olympics in Munich
Spitz’s athletic journey puts us in the way back machine all the way to the 1972 Olympics in Munich when the prodigal swimmer entered the arena burdened with a heavy set of expectations indeed.
The cocky, mustachioed swimmer had failed to live up to his own prediction at the 1968 Olympics when he told the world he would win six gold medals. Spitz did have some success, taking home two team golds and a silver and bronze in a pair of individual events, but he was pilloried in the press for the failed prediction.
He rededicated himself to training after Mexico City and prepared for Munich by winning eight individual NCAA swimming titles, and he was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, then again in 1971 and1972.
At Munich, though, Spitz showed the world what he was all about. He went through a tear that has never been matched and likely never will be. Not only did he win seven gold medals, but he also set world records in all seven events in which he copped the gold.
His tear started with the 200-meter butterfly, which Spitz one with a time of 2:00.07 seconds. Spitz raised his hands as soon as he touched the wall, well aware that he’d set a record.
Spitz’s next gold event was the 200-meter freestyle, which he won with a time of 1:52.78. He subsequently arrived on the medal stand barefoot and waved his shoes to the cheering throng, a bit of grandstanding that drew an accusation of commercialism from rival Soviet swimmers.
He shook off that controversy to win his favorite event, the 100-meter butterfly, by a full length with a time of 54.27 seconds.
Rumors had him pulling out of the next event, the 100-meter freestyle, but Spitz showed up and beat his teammate Jerry Heidenreich, the one man who was considered a threat to Spitz’s spree, by a mere half stroke.
Three more team gold medals followed-the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, and the 4 x 100-meter medley relay. Spitz and his teammates set world records in all three events, and it seemed that nothing could mar his triumphant moment.
Contorversy in handling tragady
But then a tragedy occurred that would go down in Olympic history next to Spitz’s legendary accomplishments.
Just before dawn on September 5th, Palestinian terrorists broke into the athlete’s section of the Olympic compound and killed two members of the Israeli delegation, then took nine others hostage while the world looked on in horror.
Spitz, who is Jewish, was sleeping nearby, and the following morning he made an appearance at a press conference, accompanied by his coaches and the German police.
He had no comment about the murders other than to say they were “very tragic,” and Spitz was criticized for discussing his movie career at the same time the nine hostages were still being held. Tragically, they, too, were killed when a rescue attempt failed.
Spitz left for London immediately after the games, and he received a hero’s welcome when he arrived back in the US. He capitalized on countless endorsement opportunities, so much so that he was criticized by some for his blatant commercialism.
Marriage, TV, and Real estate
He subsequently married Suzy Weiner, a UCLA student, and part-time model, but the TV and movie career Spitz envisioned for himself never panned out.
He eventually started a successful real estate company, and he reappeared as a swimmer in 1992, making a brief TV appearance and failing to qualify for the 1992 Olympics.
One of the best no matter what
The various controversies that surrounded his legendary Olympic performance have faded, and Spitz is regularly lauded for what he accomplished every four years.
He occasionally surfaces as a commentary and is often a go-to source for Olympic quotes, with the latest round focusing on the mental health struggles various athletes had in the recent Beijing Olympics.
It seems unlikely that anyone will ever equal Spitz’s amazing achievements, although Michael Phelps did erase some of Spitz’s records during his astounding run. The two swimmers stand at the top of the pyramid when it comes to athletic achievements, and no one will ever forget the uniqueness of what Mark Spitz accomplished in the pool and beyond.