For 18 months, the return of Mark Spitz has been more personal quest than public spectacle. By extending his training through another swim season, he has passed a test of will but no other. Not yet.
The second stage of his comeback begins next weekend when the most accomplished swimmer of his -- and perhaps any -- generation participates in his first competition since the 1972 Olympic Games. In accordance with the stature of the athlete, the event will be extraordinary, lucrative (by the standards of the sport) and telecast nationally. The 41-year-old Spitz is as curious as the next person about his performance in the first of two match races scheduled two weeks apart.
"I may be terrible, I may be OK, I may be great," he said by telephone from his California home. It's an entirely new experience for a man who was expected -- by himself if not all his peers -- to win virtually every race he entered in the latter stages of his previous career. In one sense, at least, it's refreshing.
What Spitz is doing is taking a timeout for a measurement in his drive to qualify for the United States Olympic Team 19 years after he left Munich with a record harvest of seven gold medals (and seven world records) in seven events, four individual and three relays. On April 13 he will engage freestyle sprint champion Tom Jager in the 50-meter butterfly at Mission Viejo (Calif.) International Sports Complex. Two weeks later, he will duel Matt Biondi, a star of the 1988 Olympics, in the same pool at the same distance. Both races will be televised on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" under the corporate umbrella of the Clairol Option Challenge.
Whether Spitz uses Clairol Option, a men's haircoloring, is something only his hairdresser knows for sure. But he does endorse it, in the company of some other former Olympians of middle age, suggesting the man has more at stake than his pride in his reintroduction to racing. The prize money ($20,000 to the winner of the first race, $35,000 to the winner of the second), while not immaterial, will not alter the lifestyle of a successful businessman with a Westwood address.
Money, of course, was a taboo subject in swimming when Spitz last competed. When he lent his medal-draped body to a poster and began to pitch milk, razor blades and swimsuits on television after his five-ring triumph at Munich, he automatically severed relations with the sport. "I never thought of myself as a professional," he said. "But the people who sat in judgment decided I was."
It wasn't until after the Seoul Olympics that the establishment of trust funds was authorized for swimmers, that they were given the same leeway to earn a living as track and field athletes, skiers and the like. When Spitz petitioned for and received restoration of his eligibility from the U.S. governing body, he was free both to compete and profit from his ability. All that was left was to find if his special talent hadn't eroded.
So he threw himself back into the pool at UCLA, just a stroll from his house, in the fall of 1989 and discovered he still had the stroke and the desire. But he had to overcome not only 17 years of rust but the condition of a body that will be 42 by the time of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
When he was young, he recalled, swimming was "such a way of life that I could eat, drink and breathe (the sport). But now I had to endure more heartache and pain. It was agonizing at first. I'd come home from a workout and have no energy. If I didn't eat within 30 minutes, I would have fallen asleep. And I needed to eat to have the energy for the next day's workout."
Spitz simplified the task by confining his Olympic ambition to the 100-meter butterfly, the event in which he was lengths ahead of the world two decades ago. His world record of 54.27 at Munich lasted longer than any of the others and had been lowered only to 52.84 (by Pablo Morales of the United States in 1986) in the past two decades. Still, it means Spitz will have to swim considerably faster than he did at 22 just to make the Olympic team, let alone contend for a medal.
After training for 18 months, he still believes it's possible. For one thing, Spitz said, he's stronger now, the result of weight-training techniques that were unknown when he stepped out of the pool for what he thought was the last time. He also has been working on his starts and turns. "We never concentrated on those before," he noted. "We just jumped in the water and started swimming."
It took a long while for the man to realize he wasn't going to feel the same in the water as he did in his prime, that he was going to have to prepare differently for a race.
"I'm tighter, more muscular than I was," Spitz said. "I'm not as loose. From a confidence standpoint, I wanted to do the warmup I always did in '72. I tried warmimg up this week the same way and it didn't feel as good. I'm a little stiffer. I have to go further. Before, I could feel warmed up after 800 meters. Now I need 1,000."