American swimmer Mark Spitz (born 1950) is considered to have been the fastest swimmer in history. For six years, beginning in 1966, he dominated the sport, winning a world record seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, West Germany. This was the most gold medals won by anyone in a single Olympiad, and each of his medal-winning performances broke a world swimming record. Spitz was also named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971, and 1972.
Encouraged in Competitive Swimming by His Father
Spitz was born on February 10, 1960, in Modesto, California, to Arnold and Lenore Spitz. Spitz's family relocated to Hawaii when Spitz was two years old. There Spitz's father taught Spitz how to swim. When Spitz was six years old, the family moved back to California, settling this time in Sacramento. At the Sacramento YMCA, Spitz began to train in competitive swimming for the first time. Sensing that Spitz had surpassed the training available at the YMCA, Arnold Spitz took his son to the Arden Hills Swim Club, where he began to train under Sherm Chavoor, a well-known swim instructor. Chavoor was to remain a mentor to Spitz throughout his career.
Spitz's father was a driving force behind Spitz's swimming career, drilling into his son the maxim, as reported by M. B. Roberts on ESPN.com, "Swimming isn't everything; winning is." Spitz took his father's advice to heart; by the time he was ten years old, he held 17 national swimming records for his age group and one world record. He also earned the title of the world's top swimmer in the 10-and-under age group.
When Spitz was 14 years old, Spitz's father realized that his son was ready for a new level in his training. He decided to move the family to Santa Clara so that Spitz could train under a new coach, George Haines, who was based at the famous Santa Clara Swim Club. This move increased Spitz's father's commute to work to 80 miles each way, but he wanted more than anything else for his son to become the best swimmer he could.
The move paid off. Spitz continued to reach new levels of excellence in swimming, including in the butterfly stroke. This stroke, considered by many to be the most difficult stroke in swimming, became Spitz's favorite. When Spitz was 16 years old, he won the 100-meter butterfly title at the National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships. It was the only the first of 24 AAU titles he would win during his career.
Entered His First Olympics in 1968
The year 1967 saw Spitz's rise to international prominence. That year he won no less than five gold metals at the Pan-American Games, held in Winnipeg, Canada. These were for the 100-meter butterfly, the 200-meter butterfly, the 400-meter freestyle relay, the 800-meter freestyle relay, and the 400-meter medley relay.
Spitz seemed perfectly poised to sweep the 1968 Olympics, held that year in Mexico City. He boasted that he would win six gold metals there. While he did shine at the Olympics, he fell short of the goals that he had set for himself, winning two gold medals in team events—for the 4 x 100 and 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay events. He also won two metals for individual events—a silver metal for the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze for the 100-meter freestyle event.
Spitz was disappointed in his showing at the Olympics, and he vowed to try harder. He knew that physically he had what it took to win gold at the Olympics; what he needed to work on was his mental preparation. He began to develop a cool demeanor, an attitude of relaxed concentration that was in marked contrast to the boastful air he had assumed in the 1968 Olympics. Following the 1968 Olympics, Spitz entered college at Indiana University, there to train with famous swimming coach Doc Counsilman. Counsilman had been Spitz's coach in Mexico City, and it was at his instigation that he went to Indiana University.
At Indiana, Spitz began a pre-dental program while continuing to swim competitively. In his freshman year, he won the 200-meter and the 500-meter freestyle, as well as the 100-meter butterfly competition at the NCAA swimming championships. He also won the 100-meter butterfly competition at the NCAA championships the following year. The year after that, 1971, he again won the NCAA championship in the 100-meter butterfly, as well as the 200-meter butterfly. His achievements earned him the Sullivan Award in 1971 for being the best amateur athlete in the United States. He was also awarded the title of World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971, and 1972.
Won Seven Olympic Gold Medals in 1972
Spitz graduated from Indiana University in 1972, just in time for the 1972 Olympics, held in Munich, West Germany. This time, he vowed to take home no less than seven gold medals. And he did. Spitz swept the swimming events exactly as he promised to do, collecting his seventh gold medal on September 4, 1972. No other athlete had ever taken home that many gold medals at a single Olympics. He won gold metals for four individual events and three team events. His first win was for the 200-meter butterfly. Next, he won the 200-meter freestyle, followed by the 100-meter butterfly. This last event was Spitz's favorite, and he won it by a full body length, reaching the finish in just 54.27 seconds. Spitz's final gold metal-winning performance in individual competition was for the 100-meter freestyle event.
In addition to his four individual gold medals, Spitz also won three gold medals for relay races. These were for the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay, and the 4 x 100-meter medley relay. With each gold metal-winning performance Spitz, then just 22, set a new world record for performance. He won all of his gold medals over a period of eight days.
Spitz's euphoria over his record seven gold metals was marred by tragedy. In the early morning hours of September 5, members of a Palestinian terrorist organization invaded the dormitory where the Olympic athletes were sleeping. They killed two Israelis and kidnapped nine others. The terrorists passed over Spitz and his American teammates, who were sound asleep not far away.
The crime rattled Spitz, who is Jewish. He made a brief statement to the press that day, saying, as reported by M. B. Roberts on ESPN.com, "I think the murders in the village are very tragic. I have no further comment." He immediately left Germany for London, without waiting to attend the Olympics' closing ceremonies. Meanwhile, the nine hostages were all killed during a botched rescue attempt.
Returned to the U.S. a Hero
In spite of the tragedy overshadowing Spitz's unprecedented achievements at the Olympics, he returned home to the United States a major celebrity, comparable in stature to Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. He was also called by some the second most recognized person in the United States, after then-president Richard Nixon. Spitz cancelled his plans to become a dentist and looked forward to making a career as a corporate spokesperson.
Soon after his return to the U.S., Spitz landed several lucrative corporate endorsement contracts. He earned about $7 million in a two-year period, and, helped by his photogenic looks, established himself as a well-known corporate spokesperson. Companies and organizations for which he endorsed products included the Schick Company, the California Milk Advisory Board, Adidas, Speedo, and many more. A photograph of Spitz wearing a swimsuit and his seven gold medals was made into a poster, and it quickly became a best seller.
Also during the year following the 1972 Olympics, Spitz courted and married Suzy Weiner, the daughter of one of his father's business associates. At the time Weiner was a theater student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and also a model.
Spitz's bid to become a Hollywood star was less successful than either his swimming career or his career as a corporate spokesperson; viewers were highly critical of his performances in television commercials and shows, which included a Bob Hope special, the Sonny & Cher show, and the Johnny Carson show. He managed to maintain a presence as a sports commentator for a few years, but after that he largely dropped out of the public eye.
Still, Spitz and his wife now had plenty of money, and he took up sailing as a hobby. Eventually he started a real estate agency in Beverly Hills, California. The business proved successful and it gave a thriving new career to the former swimming champion.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Spitz decided to come out of retirement and become an Olympic swimmer for the first time since 1972. In 1989, now 39 years old, Spitz began to train for the 1992 Olympic Trials. This decision was not completely out of the blue; in 1984 he had raced against Rowdy Gaines, who at the time held the world record time for the 100-meter butterfly—and beat him. After two years of training, Spitz was ready to attempt to qualify for the 1992 Olympics. In 1991 he raced against Tom Jager and Matt Biondi, both Olympic swimmers. The races, two separate 50-meter butterfly races, were televised on ABC's "Wide World of Sports." Unfortunately, Spitz lost both races. He also fell just over two seconds short of the qualifying time of 55:59 he needed to rejoin the U.S. Olympic swim team.
Mark Spitz settled in Los Angeles, where he continues to live with his family. Spitz enjoys to sail and has added traveling to his list of hobbies. No longer in the real estate business, he has involved himself in various other business ventures. He has also returned to his role as a spokesperson for prominent companies and organizations, including the U.S. Olympic Committee. He was found to have abnormally high cholesterol levels in 1995. He cut those levels in half through a program of diet, exercise, and medication, and then embarked on a national campaign to educate people about the risk of heart disease brought about by high cholesterol.
Spitz has not lost his competitive spirit. His backyard contains a swimming pool, but he has vowed never to race his sons in that pool. As he told Martin Fennelly in 2000 in the Tampa Tribune, "I never race them. I never race. Because I've taught them that when I swim against somebody, I don't care if you're my son, I'm going to kick your butt."
Independent, September 6, 1998.
Tampa Tribune, June 16, 2000.
Times-Picayune, September 26, 1999.
"Laureus World Sports Awards—Mark Spitz," WorldSport.com, http://www.worldsport.com (March 11, 2003).
"Spitz Lived Up to Enormous Expectations," ESPN.com, http://www.espn.go.com (March 11, 2003).