Letter to the Editor: Do Swim Fans Spit on Spitz? Is Phelps The Clear-Cut GOAT?

by Robert Bernhardt 53

December 09th, 2013 National, News

This editorial was submitted by Robert Bernhardt, who is a junior swimmer at Uni High in Urbana, Illinois.

These days in light of Michael Phelps’ accomplishments, the phrase “greatest ever” is only rarely not seen within a few sentences of the name “Phelps.” Of course it makes sense that way, considering that man’s trophy cases, which are likely consuming an obscenely large part of Mr. Phelps’ abode. Twenty-two Olympic medals, eighteen gold, eight gold medals at one Olympic Games and dozens of world records, world titles and gold medals at other international competitions. He’s treated like he’s by far and away best ever, which makes sense, seeing as he was not only the first person to win eight Olympic gold medals, he was the first to win seven. Wait a minute…

Now that I think about it there was a guy who did that. A fellow named Spitz who was, until just six years ago, held that mantle of the greatest swimmer of all time. How quickly things change. Once the new hero took hold, the old one was forgotten about and shunted away. Of course Phelps did exceed Spitz, mathematical tests show again and again that eight is larger than seven, even when gold medals are in the mix. But Mark Spitz is by no means out of the conversation for the Greatest of All-Time.

People forget how good Spitz was. Phelps was the second man to hold world records in five different individual events. Spitz was the first. It’s a pity he didn’t swim the individual medley races in international competition like Phelps did to great success, because he set a short course yards American record in the 200 IM during high school, among other records he set before hitting adulthood. Seeing as like Phelps, he held world records in two out of the four strokes, it seems to be likely that this was not just a fluke or “easy” record, but a testament to Spitz’s unrealized all-around potential.

In fact in terms of world records, Spitz might be even more impressive than Phelps. At the end of his career, Spitz held world records in four different individual events. After Phelps’ retirement in 2012 he held “only” three official world records. Yet if non-textile times from 2008 and 2009 are excluded, Phelps held only one textile world record, considered of course by many to be the true record. How can Phelps be so far beyond the level of Spitz when even four years later Spitz still held two world records? How could Phelps, who lost his record in the 200 IM to a mortal enemy in 2011 (in a head to head showdown, no less) and never, never, surpassed Ian Crocker’s standard in the 100 butterfly while not wearing a piece of plastic, be considered head and shoulders better than a man who held four world records by 1971, then broke them again by large margins in 1972, retiring unbeaten and untied at the final world stage?

For the most part Spitz’ accomplishments end there, but the speculation about his talents can go on and on. Depending on who you ask he could have likely made an Olympic final in almost every event if he was given the chance. The 50m freestyle event was not introduced to the Olympics until 1988, where it was won by American legend Matt Biondi. The world record was not recorded until 1976. Mark Spitz won the shortest race in the pool at the time, the 100 freestyle. He also won the second quickest race, the 100 butterfly. In NCAA and high school swimming he was a perennial performer in 50 yard events. The 1972 season witnessed Spitz amending the record books nine time in individual events. Had the 50 been in the 1972 Olympics, could seven gold medals could have become eight, all eight in world record time? Impossible to tell for sure, but an entertaining possibility we must not entirely rule out if we wish to appreciate Spitz’ achievements.

Nor can we rule out Spitz’ performances in longer events. After all the first world record he set was in the 400 free as a teenager, and broke it twice more, trading records with other swimmers of the day. His last WR in the event came in 1968 at an insignificant meet a month before the Olympic trials in a time that actually was faster than the Olympic gold medal winner’s time. Any speculation about Spitz’s talents are most firmly based in the 400 freestyle, an event he likely could have won in the Olympics had he put his attention to it. Fans and speculators have also tossed around allegations about the 1500m freestyle. Purportedly also as a teenager Spitz came within a few seconds of breaking that WR too. Some have gone as far as to claim the record was broken in unofficial competitions or even practice. Could Spitz have been close to holding every freestyle WR, a feat never done by men since the time of World War One, and one that will surely never be repeated in the modern swimming world?

His backstroke was also an asset to his capabilities. He is rumored to have beaten the American backstroke specialists in the 100 backstroke at Olympic training camp in 1972. Those backstroke swimmers went on to win four medals in backstroke events at the Olympics that year. Considering his range, the 200 backstroke could also have been a legitimate medal opportunity for him, had the schedule been feasible. Whether he could have beaten the most successful backstroke swimmer in history, Roland Matthes, who swept the backstroke events in both 1968 and 1972 is questionable. However the possibility of competing for a medal in a tight final is not.

The individual medley was one place where Phelps was known for dominance and it would seem Spitz should have been able to do it too. Spitz was legendary in butterfly and freestyle, and one of the best backstrokers in the world. Having set an American record for yards in high school, and then continuing to improve immensely in all of his events during college, it is undoubtedly sure that he would have had a shot at setting the national record in Olympic waters. It would certainly not be stretching the truth to think that Gunnar Larson, the 1972 champion in the 200 IM, ought to be thanking his lucky stars that Spitz chose not to develop that event in favor of the others.

For those who are counting, that’s a total of six additional theoretical medals. It would be perhaps more pragmatic to now start counting the events that we know Spitz couldn’t have medaled in, starting with breaststroke and ending perhaps with the 400 IM, which was dominated by Gary Hall Sr who at one point was more than 5 seconds faster than anyone else in the world. Incredible really, that one man should be among the best in the world in nine out of thirteen individual events contested today at the Olympic Games. How could we not consider this man to be one of the greatest?

Of course Phelps’ era was not one where moustaches were in style and world records traded like falling stocks, but one where swimsuits were tested by space agencies and wisps of hair on the back of a neck were shaved and re-shaved. Phelps swam faster times and set more world records and more American records in more events with arguably more competition and still win more medals. But we should remember that Phelps is not alone, that there is Phelps, then Spitz. Then there is everyone else.

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7 years ago

You forget that Mark Spitz was bound by the rules of his era – he had to be an amateur. One can only speculate what he could have accomplished were he allowed to continue in the sport post-college as a professional.

7 years ago

Also, what could Spitz have done as a post grad? Both are remarkable for different reasons. I despise the ‘greatest ever’ comparisions. I’m already dreading the Shane Gould v. Missy Franklin ones! 🙂

Reply to  zebrafeet
7 years ago

I’ll take the first bite:

Shane Gould held ALL freestyle WRs AND 200 IM WR SIMULTANEOUSLY.

enough said.


7 years ago

I’m not generally one to be “absolute” about anything, but Phelps did 10 times more for the sport than Spitz ever did. He’ll probably be remembered forever. Outside of the swimming community, nobody really knows Spitz name. Phelps all day.

7 years ago

Also though, don’t forget either that Michael Phelps held NAG records in distance events as well. He was one heck of a distance swimmer too, but chose to train for other events. His backstroke was nothing to be laughed at either; he could have made the Olympic team in the 100 back in ’04, ’08, or ’12, where the Americans took gold each time and silver twice.

Sean Justice
Reply to  Flyin'
7 years ago

Don’t forget that he did make the Olympic team in ’04 in the 200 back.

bobo gigi
Reply to  Sean Justice
7 years ago

He swam 53.01 in the 100 back and 1.54.65 in the 200 back in August 2007.
Not bad for a non specialist.

7 years ago

One way to look at two athletes from different eras is to examine the impact they had on the sport as a whole. I grew up in the 1970’s and was part of the club swimming boom that was in part due to the excitement generated by Mark Spitz and the 1972 games. AAU/USA Swimming seemed to fall off during the Soccer era of the late 1980’s-1990’s. My kids started their club careers in 2002 and as a parent, I got to see the Phelps effect take the sport to new levels both in terms of club participation and media coverage. This time with more staying power? Perhaps with longer careers and a deeper field on both the men’s &… Read more »

bobo gigi
7 years ago

Wow! It’s the day of the comparisons today on swimswam!
After Janet Evans vs Katie Ledecky, here comes Mark Spitz vs Michael Phelps.
I think this article will make people react.

First, thanks. I have learned many things about Mark Spitz. Truly an amazing champion. Thanks to youtube, I have watched some of his accomplishments.

Second, I hate to compare the champions from different periods but we must admit that the Michael’s career is so long and so successful from the beginning to the end (and it’s perhaps not finished) and that the competition is so bigger and more universal today.

Third, it’s not the Michael’s fault if Mark Spitz hasn’t swum longer or hasn’t won as many… Read more »

Robert Bernhardt
Reply to  bobo gigi
7 years ago

I’m sorry of there was confusion.

I don’t discredit Phelps’ records from 2001-2007 at all.

I was thinking more along the lines of “If Phelps is the best ever, then why does Ryan Lochte hold the world record in the 200 IM?” I think the question begs asking: if Michael Phelps’ lifetime best time came in a race where he got second to Lochte, is Phelps better than Lochte in that event? Yes, I would hazard to say, because he went under 1:55 first and won more times on the big stage, especially the biggest stage. But is he THAT much better? Maybe not, some would say.

Likewise in the 400 IM and 200 free. Phelps lost both… Read more »

7 years ago

I think its quite easy to believe that spitz has been forgotten. I doubt most swimmers have any knowledge of Duke Kahanamoku or even Johnny Weismuller who set over 60 world records and was never defeated in his entire career.

7 years ago

I was already on a comment when the above comment was made. I am not sure if the individual appreciates the history of swimming as msny have contributed to swimming over the years. When ai started my coach taught me to appreciate the accomplishments of the past reading of Weissmuller records from 50-800 andundefeated over a great span.
Spitz didn’t have a communication world or Proffessionalism as today. Heck gas used to be 20 cents a gallon and with minimum wage you could buy 5 gallons, things change.
Robert does a fine comprehensive on Mark especially on the backstroke in Olympic training camp which I have heard back then.
Let’s add some more with Spitz’s first national… Read more »

About Robert Bernhardt

Robert, a Canadian-born native of Champaign Illinois, is a high school junior at King Henry VIII School in Coventry, England. Robert has enjoyed significant success in his swimming at the local level since the age of seven, but nothing good enough to warrant being on this site. Outside of swimming …

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