An American Jew Brings Home Olympic Glory
Americans were so proud of their new sports hero that over a million of his pin-up posters were sold across the country, the most of any other athlete at the time. The year was 1972 and Mark Spitz had returned from Munich, Germany with 9 Olympic medals, 7 of which were gold.
It was the era when Olympic athletes were still amateurs, swimmers competed without goggles, and all-time aquatic champion Michael Phelps wasn’t even born.
Just a year prior to the ’72 Games, Spitz became the first Jewish recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award, presented every year since 1930 to the country’s most outstanding amateur athlete.
Sporting a mustache that he grew as a lark, Spitz not only earned his nation 7 gold accolades, but he set new world records in each one of those events.
Approached by the Russian swimming coach about his mustache, the water-borne star commented that it helped deflect the water away from his mouth and made his breathing easier. A year later, all Russian male swimmers followed suit with hair above their upper lips.
Four of his victories came in individual runs: 100m Freestyle (51.22 secs), 200m Freestyle (1:52.78), 100m butterfly (54.27), and 200m butterfly (2:00.70). The other three events he earned gold were in relays: 4x100m Freestyle, 4x200 Freestyle, and 4x100 Medley.
With a 5th gold medal around his neck, Spitz surpassed fellow Americans Don Schollander and Jesse Owens as the world’s most accomplished athlete in a single Olympiad.
Schollander had picked up 4 gold medals in the same water events in 1964 and Owens claimed the same number in track & field back in 1936.
For almost two generations, the California native would lead the standard by which competitive swimmers measured themselves. Spitz held the gold record for 36 years until 2008 when Michael Phelps swam for 8 in Beijing, China.
Though he succeeded in taking 2 top spots in Mexico City four years earlier, Spitz came short of his own expectations and that of the media. The 6.0 ft, 161 lb wunderkind was a brash 18-year old then and his maturity wasn’t fully developed for high stakes competitions.
After ‘68, Spitz enrolled at Indiana University and trained under legendary Doc Counsilman who also coached him in Mexico City. During his tenure with the Hoosiers, he won 8 different NCAA titles. His teammates marveled at his water “grabbing” techniques and killer instincts in the pool, knick-naming him “Mark the Shark”.
Counsilman built up the mental side of his aquatic talents. Spitz learned to appreciate that training was 80% physical and 20% psychological, while at high level tournaments it reversed to 80% psychological and 20% physical.
That challenge surfaced during his gold run in Munich when Spitz lost his nerve at one of the impending events. It was the 100m Freestyle and he was up against Australia’s Michael Wenden, the defending gold medal champion who now also defeated him in the heat and in the semi-finals leading up to the decisive race.
The American contemplated opting out, calculating that 6-for-6 was the optimal result and placing second, third, or not even reaching a medal would be an anti-climactic 6-for-7.
But Spitz was reminded by his personal coach that the 100m Freestyle is the premier race in all of swimming and winner of that event would be remembered above all the other events as simply the fastest Olympic swimmer.
He reconsidered and ended up finishing first, touching the wall 1.19 secs ahead of Wenden who trailed to 5th place.
Spitz’s final victory in Munich came hours before a group of Palestinian terrorists raided the Olympic compound, took hostages and later massacred 11 Israeli athletes. Under heavy security, he was unceremoniously whisked out of the country and the public’s memory of the ’72 Games was forever marred.
The 22-year old who got his first taste of international competition at the 1965 Maccabiah Games in Israel, chose not to return to the Olympics. He settled for financial opportunities and endorsements that stripped away his amateur status, a requirement at the time for Olympic contention.
At age 41, Spitz attempted a comeback for the 1992 Summer Olympics but narrowly failed the qualifying. He remains one of the greatest athletes of all time who brought glory to America and inspiration to millions.
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