While the world is focused on Michael Phelps dominating the 2016 Olympics, it’s probably worth remembering he isn’t the first swimmer to completely own a summer. That distinction goes to Mark Spitz, who destroyed the competition at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and set a standard for excellence that lasted 36 years.
Spitz was born in Modesto, California on February 10, 1950 as the oldest of three children. Spitz’ family moved to Honolulu, Hawaii when he was just two years old, and the young Mark swam at Waikiki beach every day. When he was six, his family moved to Sacramento and he began to swim competitively. By the time he was 10, Spitz held 17 national age-group records and one world record. So yeah, he took to the sport quickly.
Spitz trained with the Santa Clara Swim Club and attended Santa Clara High School, where he established himself as one of the world’s best in the pool. He set and held high school records in every stroke and distance, and at age 16 he won the first of 24 AAU national titles when he won the 100-meter butterfly. At 17 Spitz set his first world record at a small California meet, when he turned in a 400-meter freestyle time of 4:10.60. That record put the world on notice that the young Californian was coming.
At the 1967 Pan-Am Games, Spitz won five gold medals, setting a record that stood for 40 years, until Brazilian swimming Thiago Pereira won six golds in 2007.
At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Spitz didn’t perform how he wanted. He entered the competition as the owner of 10 world records, and boasted that he believed he would win six golds at those games. He wound up winning gold in the 4×100 and 4×200 meter free style relays, but only managed a silver in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze in the 100 freestyle.
After the bitter disappointment of the 1968 games, Spitz was determined to improve. He opted to attend Indiana University so he could train under head coach Doc Counsilman, who had been the Olympic coach in Mexico City. Counsilman and Indiana were in the midst of an unbelievable streak of six consecutive national titles (1968-1973). Spitz didn’t regret the move to the Midwest, as Counsilman’s training helped him win eight individual NCAA titles and the 1971 James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
A more mature Spitz showed up for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich focused and ready to dominate. He did just that. The 22-year-old won seven gold medals, setting world records in each event. He won the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 100 and 200 freestyle, the 4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relays and the 4×100 medley relay. Before Spitz’s final race, the 100-meter freestyle, he actually told ABC’s Donna de Varona, he expressed reluctance to actually compete. He said, “If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.” Those fears were clearly unfounded, as he won the 100-free by half a stroke over teammate Jerry Heidenreich.
Spitz’s achievements in Munich were overshadowed by the Munich Massacre, when Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli Olympians hostage, and eventually killed them. Spitz is Jewish, and his grandparents had left Hungary after World War II. As soon as the Israeli athletes were taken hostage, American track coach Bill Bowerman called for the U.S. Marines to protect Spitz and fellow American Jewish athlete Bill Schmidt.
Spitz retired from competition following the 1972 games at just 22 years old. He later attempted a comeback for the 1992 Summer Olympics but failed to meet the qualifying time.
Spitz spent his post-swimming career working in television, including a long stint with ABC Sports starting in 1976. He helped cover both the 1976 and 1984 Summer Olympics. He also signed several big endorsement deals. Spitz has long owned a real estate company, is a motivational and corporate speaker and has spent time as a stock broker specializing in private equity. He is an avid sailor, skier and an art collector.
When he returned from the 1972 games, Spitz dated UCLA theater student and model Suzy Weiner. The two were married in 1973 and have two sons, Matthew and Justin.
Spitz’s amazing performance in Munich stood as the ultimate example of one athlete dominating an entire Olympics for 36 years. Then, in 2008, Michael Phelps bettered his effort, by earning eight gold medals (five individual) in a single games. Despite being surpassed by Phelps, Spitz will long be remembered for what he did that Summer, when he became one of the greatest American Olympians of all-time.