Seven gold medals in one Olympic Games. Until the mighty Michael Phelps won eight in 2008, Mark Spitz was the unsurpassed – almost “godlike” athlete – who literally blew everyone out of the water at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
Now, if you count them all – all the amazing achievements and successes between 1968 and 1972 – Spitz actually won nine Olympic Gold Medals, plus a silver, a bronze, five Pan American gold medals, thirty-one U.S. Amateur Athletic Union titles, and eight titles from the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association. And, world records? Not a problem for Spitz, setting thirty-three during those years, and being named the most successful athlete at the 1972 Summer Olympics, as well as being crowned the World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972. There wasn’t even a fish, shark, or whale that could claim they swam better or faster than Mark Spitz.
A Real Star
Many people say that if you look up the word ‘star’ in the dictionary, so-and-so’s face will be there. But with Spitz, that was actually true. The word star, and the adjectives of excellence, unsurpassed energy, and vitality were not even descriptive enough for this man. He was a powerhouse in the water, which led to having a spectacular celebrity life and career out of the pool. There was actually no competition for Mark Spitz. The ‘next best’ was so far below this man’s amazing abilities that there was quite literally no one who could race him to any finish line whatsoever. Every once in a great while there will come along one person who is truly unbeatable, and Mark Spitz was that one.
Before he was even ten-years of age, Mark Spitz could already claim seventeen national age-group records – AND one world record already! And during his four years training with George F. Haines of the Santa Clara Swim Club, Mark held national high school records in every stroke and in every distance. This was absolutely unheard of; in fact, there were some that felt as if Mark Spitz must be a robot, considering that not one person could touch him when they entered the pool.
At only fifteen, Mark was a part of the 1965 Maccabiah Games, and proceeded to win four gold medals there, as well as being named the most outstanding athlete. A year by year account could be told to all readers about Spitz that would make everyone disbelieve; there was not a competition that he entered where he did not come out victorious, and the list of awards, medals, and accolades began to number into the hundreds before he’d even reached the age of sixteen.
The Shark – Bloodthirsty Competitor
The 1968 Olympic Games came to pass, and Spitz won team gold medals in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle and the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay. And there was nowhere that Mark didn’t go where he wasn’t referred to as “Mark the Shark.” This man was truly a bloodthirsty competitor in the water, and never let his teammates down!
But, yes, even though the accolades went on and on and on, the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich is the one that will literally never leave anyone’s mind. First, as an athlete, Spitz didn’t real want to swim the final freestyle; he felt that it would be unlikely that he would get that many gold medals. In fact, minutes before the race, Spitz told a television reporter, “I know I say I don’t want to swim before every event but this time I’m serious. If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.” There was no reason to worry, as Spitz won by half a stroke and set a new world record of 51.22.
This elation, however, was definitely not something that lasted very long in Spitz’s life, because his reluctance and fear to participate in the event was soon overshadowed by a much more frightening and dramatic moment in the world. Mark Spitz won his final competition – his record-setting gold – just a few hours before Palestinian terrorists captured and eventually murdered eleven Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic Village. Therefore, celebrating the thrill soon turned into avoiding being killed as, in an effort to keep the other athletes safe, Mark Spitz was flown out of the country immediately under heavy security.
Spitz Was Different
Mark Spitz was actually the only swimmer to rank on ESPN’s “SportsCentury 50 Greatest Athletes” list, and is MOST recognized and remembered for the irreverent mustache that he wore throughout the Olympics. You see, swimmers were always clean-shaven – perhaps having something to do with the flow or thrust of their body mass through the water – but Spitz – as with everything else – was always completely different, and wore his iconic mustache with pride as he accepted each and every one of his Gold medals. The “fur” was obviously a true good-luck charm for the perfect swimmer!
His celebrity did come in the form of many huge endorsements from GM as well as many others, and Spitz also had an amazing success with his published biography, The Extraordinary Life of An Olympic Champion.
Mark Spitz is still one of the most amazing athletes of all-time. From his unbeatable swimming career to his fame and fortune out of the pool, Mark Spitz outdid the competition no matter where he was standing. Becoming the “Athlete of the Century,” and one of the six “Greatest Olympians of ALL TIME,” as far as Sports Illustrated was concerned, Mark Spitz never had a off-day. And even though he was only twenty-two, Mark Spitz retired after the Munich Olympics came to an end. He only briefly came out of retirement in 1992, in order to compete for a spot on the U.S. Swimming Team at the Barcelona Games when he was forty-one years old.
No, Mark Spitz did not qualify for the team, but it certainly didn’t matter. This was and is THE swimmer – the Shark – the Mystery of the Deep that no other swimmer will ever surpass. Medal count, perhaps, but no swimmer will ever have that charm, vitality, and never-ending drive to be the absolute best – in and out of the water!