Pool Shark

(Originally published in the Missoulian newspaper.)

The mustache took forever to fill in, Mark Spitz says.

He’d never grown one before and so it was slow going at first. Originally, Spitz says the plan was to shave it before the U.S. Olympic trials in Chicago, but once he saw how much of a distraction it was for his competitors and the attention it grabbed from the media, he decided it was a keeper.

At the Olympics in Munich, the mustache and his shaggy head of hair got even more notice in a sport where many athletes shave their entire bodies to reduce drag in the water.

Practice time in the Olympic village was limited, so a few days before he was scheduled to compete, Spitz had to share the pool with the Russian national swim team while training.

Midway through his workout Spitz says he noticed the Russian coaches were photographing him from the pool’s underground observation deck, scouting him for the race. In response he says he started to swim poorly on purpose, flailing around like it was his first time in the water.

When the workout was over, the Russian coaches approached him and the one who spoke English asked about his unorthodox stroke. Spitz said he swam that way all the time. The coach then asked about the mustache. Didn’t it slow him down?

No, Spitz said, it was actually aerodynamic. It kept the water off his mouth, allowing him to get his head lower in the water while swimming the butterfly.

The Russian coach translated to his group. They nodded solemnly and went away grumbling quietly to each other.

Everyone knows the next part. The following week, Spitz won a record seven gold medals at the Munich Summer Games, setting seven world records in the process.

Apparently, the Russians took notes.

“Absolutely true story,” Spitz says on Friday while giving a talk to Missoula area youth swimmers and their parents. “The next year every male Russian swimmer had a mustache … and some of the East German women, too.”

Today Spitz’s signature facial hair is gone. He says he shaved it after 16 years as a Valentine’s Day surprise for his wife.

“Our two boys were screaming,” he says. “They didn’t know who I was.”

At 58, he no longer resembles the “skinny little guy,” he describes in stories from the early 1970s. These days he earns his living with a variety of different business ventures and by making corporate appearances on behalf of his sponsors.

And as a motivational speaker of sorts.

Spitz talks about his career in a round-about kind of way, weaving from topic to topic without pause, eventually circling back around to make a point. Or something like one. The mustache story, for instance, shows the importance of seizing every available advantage in competition, Spitz says.

During his appearance at Missoula’s Splash Montana water park, he makes a few other suggestions for young athletes – turn negatives into positives, give your all, want it more than the person in the next lane – all of them tangentially attached to personal anecdotes.

Critics have asked if Spitz is self-obsessed. A better question might be: How could he possibly avoid it?

A child swimming prodigy, Spitz was famous by the age of 18, an icon by the time he retired from sport at 22. Between 1965 and 1972, Spitz won 11 Olympic medals – nine of them gold – and set 33 world records. He was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972.

He was the cover of a Wheaties box. A matinee idol for a generation raised on the Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin.

There were rumors Spitz would play James Bond in the movies. The queen of England once asked if she could get him a soda. When Spitz tells stories about his children, Michael Jordan and Phil Mickelson sometimes comprise the supporting cast.

After terrorists struck the ’72 Munich Games, killing 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, the Chancellor of Germany came to make sure Spitz and his father – who are both Jewish – were OK. Once Spitz had been evacuated back to the U.S., California governor Ronald Reagan met him at the airport. The two remained friends until Reagan died in 2004, Spitz says.

So, self-absorbed? Maybe a little. But perhaps that comes with the territory when you’ve led a life as singular as his.

Spitz has never been normal. His entire life has been lived in the spotlight of being America’s greatest ever individual Olympian. It’s all Spitz knows, and it will remain that way for at least for one more month.

A hypothetical.

Both of them swimming in their prime, same suits, same time to prepare, same pool, who takes it – Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz?

“That’s a great question … ,” Spitz says. “Those people that are great from one era to the next have one thing in common, they all knew how to win. So if in fact (we) were all competing against each other, all things being equal then – in theory – we should all tie.”

Spitz cracks a smile.

“However,” he says “I’m the only one, as we sit here right now, that’s won seven gold medals. So I might have to give myself the nod.”

Phelps comes up a lot lately.

The 23-year-old phenom from Baltimore won eight total medals in 2004 and next month in Beijing he’ll be vying to break Spitz’s mark by winning eight golds.

Spitz says he and Phelps have met, exchanged some chit-chat, but are not regularly in contact. Phelps already has a good coach and a good team, Spitz says, and the older man would have nothing to add that could help him.

“I think this time he’s going to do it,” Spitz says. “He came close four years ago, he’s got that experience, so we’ll see what happens.  If I handicapped his possibilities, I wouldn’t bet against it, let’s put it that way.”

The Speedo swim wear company has a standing offer to pay Phelps $1 million if he ties or breaks Spitz’s record. Spitz says in 2004 Speedo was able to take out an insurance policy to cover the money. This year, the company was categorically denied coverage, the insurance providers thinking it was too much of a sure thing.

If indeed Phelps can do it, Spitz welcomes the change, saying 36 years is long enough for one man to hold the record.

“Somewhere along the line, I’m in his breath and in his thoughts and that’s only positive, that I had that kind of influence,” Spitz says. “Why not pass the baton? It’s about time.”