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Spitz Cast Shadow Over Heidenreich

September 03, 2002|Randy Harvey

After winning his fifth gold medal in Munich, Mark Spitz considered withdrawing from his final individual race. One reason was that he felt he needed rest for the 400-meter medley relay.

Another was that Spitz--whose father, Arnold, often said, "Swimming isn't everything; winning is"--didn't believe he could beat U.S. teammate Jerry Heidenreich in the 100 freestyle.

"Six gold medals is better than six golds and a silver," Spitz said. But Spitz's coach, Sherm Chavoor, called him a chicken and warned that he might be left off the relay if he didn't swim the 100.

Spitz swam, setting a world record in 51.22 seconds. Heidenreich was second in 51.65.

Heidenreich, who would join Spitz the next day on the winning 400 medley relay team, won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in Munich. Swimming for Southern Methodist, he once beat Spitz's U.S. record in the 200 freestyle by more than a second. But the second-best swimmer of his era was not fast enough to escape Spitz's shadow, especially with a demanding father--much like Spitz's--who often would ask him, "Don't you ever get tired of coming in second to Spitz?"

Heidenreich, cocky and charismatic, returned to his native Dallas after the Olympics and tried to maintain the facade created by his nickname, "Mr. Wonderful."

His life was anything but. He had difficulty finding jobs, then holding them. A drinker since high school, he turned to drugs. He was in and out of rehab.

"He had tremendous pressure when he got back from the Olympics to become successful," Larry Vanderwoude, a friend of Heidenreich, told the Dallas Morning News. "His No.1 resentment was that Mark Spitz became successful and Jerry didn't, that Mark made a lot of money and Jerry didn't."

In the late '80s, Heidenreich did something he vowed he never would; he became a swim coach. In the pool, he found solace.

But Heidenreich, whose father died in 1985, lost his brother to pancreatic cancer in 1998 and his mother to emphysema in 2000. His third marriage ended in divorce in 2001. His contract with a renowned fitness center in Dallas wasn't renewed. He resumed smoking and drinking. Shortly after, he suffered a mild stroke that resulted in some paralysis on his left side and neurological damage.

At the end, living with a girlfriend in Paris, Texas, and thinking about coaching again, he couldn't swim in a straight line. On April 18, he took an overdose of pills and died on his bed. He left a suicide note that, in part, said, "I just can't take it anymore." He was 52.

"There is always somebody that makes somebody great," Spitz told the Morning News. "And Jerry Heidenreich was the reason I was great."

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