The summer when every man wanted to be like Mark Spitz

Barcelona“It took me six months to grow a mustache. I didn’t like how it looked, but the coach told me I had to scare the opponents, that I had to look like the great American hero. So I jumped on the pool in the qualifying events to be in the Olympics with that damn moustache,” recalls Mark Spitz. Now 50 years ago, the American swimmer became the culprit of millions of men growing mustaches. “Yes, yes, millions. It was crazy,” admits the athlete, who has returned to Munich these days to remember his milestone during the 1972 Games, when he was the first man able to win seven gold medals in the same Olympic event. Years later he would be surpassed by Michael Phelps. “Luckily, no moustache,” Spitz joked at a press conference.

The moustache, the famous moustache. Mark Spitz was coming off a disappointing 1968 Olympics in Mexico, when despite holding two world records he failed to win an individual gold medal. They won a silver and a bronze, and two gold medals in relief. What was a dream for any mortal was a disappointment for the young Californian. So he changed coaches and went to work at Indiana University with James Counsilman, a tough guy who had been a bomber pilot in World War II. With Counsilman, Spitz suffered in the pool. And he grew a mustache. “The idea was to shave right after the trials, but I saw that everyone was talking about the mustache. So it was part of the image of me that the rivals who could not defeat me had. The first day I trained in Munich, I wanted to get to know the pool by arriving when it was the Soviets’ turn to train. They let me swim down a side lane, and when I came out they all looked at the moustache, half with surprise, half with laughter. So I decided I would swim every day with a mustache. Guess what? A year later, all Soviet swimmers wore moustaches.” He no longer wore one. He would wear it again only when he signed advertising contracts for brands of shaving foam. In 1972 Mark Spitz became one of the men most famous in the world thanks to the seven gold medals, all in a world record. Everywhere, from the Costa Brava to Japan, men wanted to wear the slip-on swimsuit, the mustache and look like Spitz. Who swam well, of course, he was “all Mark Spitz”. And this despite the fact that the swimmer, after his 7 medals at the 1972 Games, decided to retire from competition. He was only 22 years old.

“I was just an ordinary guy who trained a lot. And during a specific week of my life, I did extraordinary things,” he explained half excitedly in a documentary recorded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) these days. And what a week that was. In the midst of the Cold War, when any competition involving Americans and Soviets was much more than a competition. It was the Olympic Games of the famous final of the men’s basketball tournament, when the Soviets prevailed in the last second in a chaotic final, where the last plays had to be repeated, where the timers stopped when it did not play, where there were punches. The Olympic Games that arrived for the first time in color in many homes on the planet thanks to the new televisions. The Games of Mark Spitz. And yes, also the Games of tragedy, since they were those of the attack of a Palestinian commando on the Olympic Village, where they kidnapped members of the Olympic delegation of Israel to demand the release of more than 250 prisoners Palestinians It ended in a massacre, with 17 dead, 11 of whom were athletes or referees from the Israeli delegation, as well as five Palestinians and a German policeman. By the time the attack took place, Spitz had already won all seven gold medals and was walking around the Bavarian capital with a smile from ear to ear, basking in the fame. “When I woke up that day I discovered what was happening. Within minutes I had the German chancellor in my room, telling me that I had to be sent away from Munich,” he recalls. He was quickly sent to London surrounded by heavy security measures, as Mark Spitz is Jewish. And it was suspected that he could also be a target of terrorists.

A childhood between waves

A few years ago Spitz went around the villages of Hungary accompanied by a historian to find the villages where his ancestors on his mother’s side had been born. A branch of the family had come to the United States in the late 19th century from Hungary; the second, shortly after fleeing the pogroms against the Jews in the Russian Empire. His parents had been married in a synagogue in southern Manhattan, when more than 15 people lived in the flats, cramped, and both Yiddish and English were spoken. A generation that worked hard to earn a new life, in this case on the other side of the country, in California, where the father found work as a steel mill manager. The Spitz went to live in the city of Modesto, where Mark was born. And then in Hawaii, where while the father continued to work hours in factory offices the boy grew up swimming in giant waves surrounded by surfboards. “He made me suffer, he looked like a suicidal child who ran to enter the water in places where adults don’t go. I followed him as best I could,” the mother recalled. The little one was destined to swim. When Spitz was not even 8 years old, however, the family would return to California, but to a city far from the sea, Sacramento. So they enrolled the boy in the local swimming club, where he met coach Sherm Chavoor, who first understood the potential of the swimmer and took him to state competitions when he was just 10 years old. He won them, of course.

Mark Spitz became a little-kept secret in American pools, as he set new local and world records in lower divisions. He had no rival. His first experience in an absolute tournament would come in 1965, when he was 15 years old and he was summoned to go to the Maccabean Games, an Olympic Games for athletes of the Jewish faith that still exist. That year they were held in Tel-Aviv, where that thin dwarf defeated all the adults he encountered and won four gold medals. At the 1967 Pan American Games there were already five gold medals. He was 17 years old and already achieved the first world records, which is why he was the big favorite at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. But he didn’t make it. “The lesson I learned in Mexico was that my destiny was not a matter of luck, but of the decisions I made myself. Whatever happened would not be by accident, but by my determination”, defends Spitz, who now he is 72 years old. “I think that the athletes who have been very successful at the Olympics is not because we don’t feel the pressure, but because we know how to put it in the right place. In Mexico, I didn’t know how to compete well, I was nervous, the body didn’t respond.” I was 18, it was normal.

Four years later, always accompanied by Sherm Chavoor, who was his personal trainer, and thanks to the work done with Counsilman, Spitz arrived at the Munich Games again as a big favorite. “I had the world record in my four individual events. With the three relays, it was possible for me to win seven gold medals. The expectations were immense. But when my first event came, the 200 butterfly, I had visions of that had happened in Mexico. It was like a movie, a flash, one image after another, boom, boom, boom. So I looked for a different image, remembering a practice in Sacramento two weeks before the trials, in which I broke the world record. I built my confidence by going back to that training pool. I visualized it, I was transported to it. My brain wasn’t in Munich, it was in Sacramento. After winning the first gold, I wasn’t afraid of anything.” And six more medals followed.

Spitz was so intent on winning that after each of his triumphs his only obsession was to drink water non-stop so he could pass the doping control early and go to rest for the next test. The joy of each medal lasted only a few minutes, as there was always a new challenge. One of them, however, almost fell, as once he had five gold medals he contemplated giving up the 100m freestyle, the distance in which he had the least margin of advantage over his rivals. His coaches convinced him that, despite the previous results, only a victory in the queen test would be recognized as the fastest in history. They stabbed him. And with wounded pride, he also broke this world record. He was so obsessed with winning that he didn’t even finish enjoying the seventh medal, which came in the 4×100 relay, as he was designated to swim butterfly style in the third relay. “I wanted to be the last, to be the one who won the gold. But over time I saw that it was the right decision, that way victory was guaranteed. But at that moment I was in another world,” he admits. So much so, that before he swam the 100 free final he told a teammate who saw him overwhelmed: “If I win six gold medals in six events, I’ll be a winner. If I win six medals in seven events, I’ll be a failure.”

The world surrendered at his feet, but he understood that living like this was not a good idea. “What hurt me the most was not having time to enjoy it while it was happening. I couldn’t. If I had, if I’d tried to be a spectator at my own show, I wouldn’t have won, because that’s what happened in Mexico in 1968, that I came there thinking I’d enjoy it and then I didn’t compete well. In 1972 I didn’t enjoy it, but I was so well prepared that I didn’t fail.” Spitz had become one of the most famous people in the world. Everything he did was analyzed. When he stepped onto the podium to receive a medal barefoot, with his sneakers dangling from his fingers, he was accused of covertly advertising the sneaker brand, Adidas. He denied it. “They cut the time to the medal ceremony down to five minutes and I barely had time to get dressed. I couldn’t zip up my pants or put on my sneakers. Nobody was paying me, they were the sneakers I had bought four years earlier in a store in California. They were my lucky sneakers. It was in good faith, but the controversy caused me a lot of stress,” he explains.

After the seven medals and seven world records, his father reminded him in the pool in Munich that he couldn’t let success go to his head: “It wanted to remind me that I was still a normal person, that I wasn’t special. And it was true.” So he made the decision to call it quits after those days in which he had touched the sky, but in which he had also ended up surrounded by marines Americans listening to him away from the Olympics. Spitz put up with photographers stalking him in the years that followed, when he went to college to study, when he coached or when he went to trade events. He never wanted to compete again, although in 1992 he accepted a trick from a film director: if he qualified for the Barcelona Olympics at the age of 41, he would win a million euros. Spitz returned to training and was out of the Games by less than two seconds, with a mark that would have allowed him to be in Barcelona in other countries. In the United States, where the level was the highest, no.


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