10 Things You Didn’t Know About Mark Spitz

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Mark Spitz may be synonymous amongst this generation as the guy who held “that record” before Michael Phelps came along, but for a generation Spitz was more than just the winningest Olympian of all time, he was also the first swimmer to make a transition into the world that is generally reserved for the major sports in the USA – the land of celebrities!

Where Johnny Weissmuller laid the tracks – the 100m freestyle champion won 6 Olympic titles in the 1920’s and became a Hollywood star in the 30’s and 40’s – Spitz ran off with it. Appearances on various late night television shows followed, including The Tonight Show, as well as a slew of endorsement deals.

Here are 10 things you might not have known about one of the all time greats:

1. He trained under George Haines at Santa Clara and Doc Counsilman at Indiana. Already a swimming prodigy at the age of 14 – he’d already broken 17 NAG records – Spitz was sent to train with George Haines at the famed Santa Clara Swim Club. After completing his high school swimming in Santa Clara, as well as an Olympic appearance where he medaled four times, Spitz fell out with Haines in 1969, leaving to train with Doc Counsilman at Indiana University. He’d win 8 individual titles while also helping the Hoosiers win NCAA’s each year he was there.

2. Spitz’ performance in 1972 was a perfect 7/7 in world records and gold medals. While Phelps did break Spitz’ individual Games medal haul record, he didn’t quite match Spitz’ 7 Golds and 7 world records, with Phelps coming up short in the 100m butterfly. In that race, which he narrowly out-touched Milorad Cavic for gold, Phelps missed Ian Crocker’s world record. The only time in Beijing that he would. Phelps would get a 7th WR in the medley relay on the last night, putting him 7/8 in world record attempts.

3. Mark Spitz roasted Ronald Reagan. Along with Phyllis Diller, Dom DeLuise and Don Rickles, Spitz roasted Ronald Reagan in 1973 on Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast. Reagan wasn’t commander-in-chief then, he was Governor of California at the time.

4. His moustache became a fashion trend amongst swimmers. Spitz’ look was classic 70’s–no swim goggles and a greasy moustache. When asked about his moustache by a Russian coach prior to the ’72 Olympics, Spitz’ reply was that his moustache didn’t slow him down, and that it even deflected water away from his mouth, providing the streamlining necessary to swim as fast as he had at the US Olympic Trials earlier that year. According to Spitz, the following year “all male Russian swimmers had a moustache.” It’s a good look!

5. He came close to settling for 6 golds and 6 world records. A couple lanes up from Spitz in lane 5 for the 100m freestyle final was Michael Wenden of Australia. Sporting a thunderous mohawk, the defending Olympic champion, and standing world record holder, Wenden had beaten Spitz in both the preliminaries and the semi-finals. For a brief period Spitz debated pulling out of the race, afraid that he would tarnish his golden streak. Peter Daland, coach of the US men’s team in ’72, called Spitz out, telling him that with the 100m freestyle being swimming’s blue ribbon event, that someone else would be crowned the fastest swimmer on the planet if he withdrew. Spitz listened, and broke Wenden’s world record by nearly a second.

6. The moustache was grown out of stubborness. The iconic moustache, which took four months to grow and which he took a substantial amount of pride in, initially sprouted in the same way that many great things happen – out of pride and stubborness. When a collegiate coach told him he couldn’t grow one, Spitz let his facial hair grow wild.

7. He predicted he would win 6 gold medals at the 1968 Games. Long before his exploits in Munich, Spitz brashly predicted he would win half a dozen golds in Mexico City. Although he came up a little bit short – winning two golds, a silver and a bronze, an 18 year old Spitz had accumulated the experience necessary to take another run at the mark four years later.

8. At the age of 41 he made a comeback attempt. Like many elite athletes, sometimes the bright glow of the spotlight continues calling long after you hang up the suit. At the age of 41, after having been out of competition for nearly two decades, Spitz’ comeback to the sport started with a pair made for-TV swim-offs against 80’s/90’s sprint stars Tom Jager and Matt Biondi. Spitz would lose both races, and the fastest he would swim in the 100m butterfly leading up to the 1992 Trials was a 58.03 (Pablo Morales won Trials in 54.05, with Mel Stewart second in 54.06).

9. The iconic poster of him wearing 7 golds sold over a million copies. Brandishing that trade mark moustache, a full coif of hair, and the 7 gold medals, Spitz’ poster sold into the 7-figures mark, making it up until then the most popular poster ever of an athlete. Regarding the picture, “The medals weighed a lot,” he told SI in 1976. “They have crazy, heavy chains… It was hard to stand up straight wearing them all.”

10. He hit the mainstream and cashed in following the Olympics. Sure, Weissmuller had the “Tarzan” gig, but in the years following 1972 Spitz became a bona-fide celebrity (or at least a celebrity spokesperson), becoming the first swimmer to make a monetary splash as a result of their Olympic performance. Beyond the typical swimmer sponsorships – Speedo, I’m looking at you – there was Schick, a waterproof Mark Spitz edition Swatch, and even more recently, a spot with Amanda Beard for GoDaddy and even a PlayStation commercial. Spitz continues to capitalize on his fame and swimming success, giving up to 30 motivational speeches in Olympic years.

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53 Comments on "10 Things You Didn’t Know About Mark Spitz"

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Thank you for this but you forgot to mention- Mark Spitz did fall out with George Haines during his career but he then moved to work with Sherm Chavoor, in addition to Doc Councilman at Indiana. A great book (I think it is out of print) The 50 Meter Jungle, chronicles the journey of Spitz, Mike Burton and Debbie Meyer. Chavoor is considered the father of “interval training”.

Not Chavoor, but Counsilman’s The Science of Swimming

Sherm started interval training in the early 60’s. He got the idea from Japenese track coaches.

Mike in Dallas

Also, a classic book is Doc’s ‘The Science of Swimming’ which I read, first as swimmer at the high school and university level, and later as a swimming coach.

That book really demonstrated for many WHY swimming gets better all the time: the Science of SWIMMING is continually improving – and Doc’s book really was something of a trail-blazing effort in this area. Is it still in print? Ever Updated?

1994 The New Science of Swimming, by Doc & Brian C.

Not Mike but in Dallas

Where did you swim and then coach in college?

The best book on Spitz was the biography/autobiography written and published a few years ago (I forget the title name). This one really went into great detail on Mark’s life and I found to be more fascinating than the books on Michael Phelps. Especially during the 1968 Olympic year when his life literally became la living hell with his Santa Clara and Olympic teammates. With what happened to him at the 1968 Olympic training camp and Olympic Games, I am amazed he came away with four medals and did as well as he did considering the circumstances. (Though I am certain Mark would beg to differ.)

paco the taco

I have not read the book but have talked to many who swam with Mark and the consensus was that he was VERY CONFIDENT – at times to the detriment of his teammates. Also heard he lacked a “filter” for the things he said.

Very well said.

You’re being ‘kind’. Truth be told, he was (and still is) an arrogant, conceited guy. That is why you virtually never see him as a ‘spokesman’ for the sport. These comments come from personal experience with him. Sorry, but I’ll pass on this one.

Wrong use of “literally”!

OLDBALDIMER

Mark Spitz: The Extraordinary Life of an Olympic Champion Hardcover – July 1, 2008. Very good read.

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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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