Why You Should Watch Mark Spitz’s Documentary “72 – A Gathering of Champions”

With child-like excitement I pushed off work creating a quiet space to soak up every second of Becoming an Olympic Legend, episode three in the docuseries 72 – A Gathering of Champions.

Mark Spitz was my hero. As a kid I had no time for Superman or Batman. Spitz was it, the greatest Olympian of all-time. Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this dedicated documentary episode. It might be poorly produced, I worried. At the very least, I’d enjoy seeing Spitz return to Munich, Germany 50 years past his 1972 Olympic Games where he won seven gold medals all in world record time.

I froze in surprise when saw the producer credits. Another Mark, Mark Ciardi, appeared onscreen. Ciardi’s the President of game1 and CEO of Select Films. I knew Ciardi from my entertainment days before SwimSwam. Back then he was one-half of the producing dream-team Mayhem, Disney’s secret weapon production company behind films such as  The Rookie and Miracle. Ciardi was young, not far from his pro baseball turn for the Milwaukee Brewers, and he was powerful in Hollywood—but you’d never know it. The instant you meet him, his humanity comes through. When the 2004 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials were hosted in Long Beach, I invited Ciardi to make the drive with me down from LA. He experienced elite swimming, and he got an early glimpse of young Michael Phelps.

So, in addition to surprise when I saw Ciardi’s producing credit, I thought one thing. This is going to be great because I know Ciardi has a deep love and respect for story.

Style-wise this episode leans into the power of narrative, leaning into the weight this experience had – and still has – on Spitz. There are no special effects or overreaching director devices used to elicit cheap emotion. You walk with Spitz, in Munich, into his memory, and somehow the moments feel immediate. The emotional impact on Spitz is a slow burn, building as subtle wrinkles on his face as he narrates formative moments in his age group swimming career and each race at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics.

After watching Spitz’s episode I sent him a text — I had trouble watching your episode. You’re too good-looking. It’s like staring into the sun!

It was joke, probably to decompress from the emotion I was feeling. Men do that. We move away from what we feel when it’s too much. The truth is I cried throughout the film, and I couldn’t shake it when the screen went black and the credits rolled. Great stories, well told, suck you in. You get lost in their worlds.

Spitz was essentially a kid heading into the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Expectations for success were, in hindsight, overwhelming. He was favored to win the 100 fly and got silver. In the 100 free he earned bronze. Spitz doesn’t hold back talking us through these races. He doesn’t skimp on the pain and disappointment he felt. He pulls you through the full range of his emotions which culminate with him getting last in the 200m butterfly, an event in which he held the world record.

Over the next four years, Spitz journeys back from that pain. His time with the legendary Doc Counsilman at IU and each milestone of success are noted—but not celebrated. They unfold as incremental steps. All the while, the hurt from the 1968 Olympics haunts him. Spitz can’t shake the disappointment. Sure, on balance, he won four medals in Mexico City, but he did not swim to the best of his ability and the performance overall riddles him with regret.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich is weighted with anxiety and drama that Spitz shoulders to his very first event. And it’s the 200m butterfly. Behind the blocks flashes of Mexico City assault his head. For me, this is where great sports stories sing, the moment when it’s clear our hero is both the protagonist and antagonist. For Mark Spitz to become legend, he has to overcome his own fear.

Spitz’s episode isn’t all hard lines delineating pain and glory. There something else more meaningful throughout. Spitz is old. While he wears his age well, like a cinematic old movie star, there is this philosopher king quality in his retelling that’s authentic. 50 years has worn down any sense of ego. Spitz is threadbare and wise in his compassion for himself and what he sacrificed to make this achievement. He captivates us throughout the documentary episode with his razor-sharp memory, and in the final frames, when the camera cuts to him, the white-haired old icon walking off the Munich pool deck, you’re sad to see him go.

Many thanks to Mark Spitz for his raw vulnerability in telling his story, and thanks to Mark Ciardi for his deft hand producing this film. This is a gift to Olympic fans and to anyone who identifies as a swimmer.

See the Mark Spitz episode here: Becoming an Olympic Legend | 72 – A Gathering of Champions

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Marklewis
3 months ago

Mark won all his races fairly easily. He swam with a lot of finesse. A true “natural” talent.

In the film, Mark talks about how important winning the 100 freestyle was, so he could say he was the “fastest man in the water.”

Probably he and Phelps are the only two swimmers that could swim both the 200 fly and 100 free. I think Phelps only set an AR and not a WR in the 100 free.

Walter
Reply to  Marklewis
3 months ago

There’s that Hungarian guy….

Dave
Reply to  Walter
3 months ago

Sure his 100 free is improving but I doubt he’ll ever be a threat to ever do much of significance in the 100 free. With Chalmer, Popovici, Dressel alone, where would he ever have a chance to medal? There are also a group some rapidly improving youngin’s too like Liendo-Edwards, Brooks Curry. Zhanie Pan he’ll have to contend with as well.

Jonny Newsom
3 months ago

I remember the attempted comeback when he trained with the ucla men in the early 90’s.

Jonny Newsom
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

Mel, I may be making this up, but didn’t Matt race him in a 100 on network TV and Matt did fly while Spitz did free?

Admin
Reply to  Jonny Newsom
3 months ago

I don’t think the race ever happened, it was just a simulated race during the 2000 Olympics. At the time this was the best of the best in video production.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0-amZusTVI

But maybe there was something else.

Last edited 3 months ago by Braden Keith
Jonny Newsom
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

This gives a good and quick overview of some of those races. https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1991/05/10/spitz-is-a-distant-last-in-100-meter-race/

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

Definitely ABC. I remember it was sad when Spitz got out of the pool and was in partial denial, saying during the immediate interview, “I look forward to racing Matt again.”

Aflyonthewall
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
3 months ago

It’s all about perspective. One can perceive that moment as “sad”, I see Spitz’s reaction as true to form for a champion. Champions always think they can improve.

FCoach
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

That’s correct, Mel, I watched that live on TV as well!

Fraser Thorpe
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

They even played these in Aus. Mel, can swimswam get a hold of the clips? I’ve never been able to find the races online.

Fraser Thorpe
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

Thanks!

NB1
3 months ago

watching him swim (butterfly) is amazing. You can tell how inefficient he is by today’s standards, and yet, so light, smooth and incredibly fast, and a joy to watch. He must have been so talented, along with Gary Hall, they both look like they could swim 1:52 with goggles and today’s training.

The White Whale
Reply to  NB1
3 months ago

Yeah, it’s funny how in those days the philosophy was get off the blocks and then come up and start swimming. His turnover at the start of the 200 fly is crazy.

Virgil Hilts
3 months ago

This is so well done. Just tremendous!

Spitz’s reflective commentary about his emotional roller coaster ride from Mexico to Munich and then during the eight days of competition adds so much.

Fun to hear the voices of Keith Jackson and Chris Schenkel (ABC’s announcers).

I’m glad the producers spotlighted Don Schollander early on (Schollander won 4 golds in Tokyo, but would’ve won 6 golds with today’s Olympic program).

In 2010, I did several workouts in the Munich pool in lane 4, and thought of Spitz. (Melvin: in 1999, I worked out in the Barcelona Olympic pool and thought of you and Pablo Morales!)

Sportinindc
3 months ago

Great write up Mel. And you are right, this is a gift. The nuances of Mark’s storytelling brought all of my emotions out.

MarkB
3 months ago

Only quibble here is that people always remark that Spitz finished last in the 200 Fly in ‘68. He finished 8th. Last in the Final but NOT last.

Gold Medal Mel
Reply to  MarkB
3 months ago

Sorry. That is correct. He was the WR Holder and got last in final.

mahaney
Reply to  MarkB
3 months ago

unlike cody miller who would never get 8th

Last edited 3 months ago by mahaney
2Fat4Speed
Reply to  MarkB
3 months ago

Really? The fact he got 8th in an event before winning 7 gold medals in one Olympics is what he is remembered for?

Walter
Reply to  2Fat4Speed
3 months ago

Redemption.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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