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Golden Shadow

Seven medals and world records made Mark Spitz an icon, and today he is still swimming's giant


Mark Spitz was a '70s icon, and if you remember much about that decade's pop culture, he was one of the decade's two poster children. The other was Farrah Fawcett. Both were clad in swimsuits, only Spitz accessorized his with seven gold medals.

It was about the hair too.

She had the hair. He had the hair, and the well-coifed mustache. His poster remains the best-selling Olympic keepsake. Bruce and Mary Lou, get in line.

"I can't think of any athlete in any sport 30 years after their prime who is still the No. 1 in their sport," said John Naber, who won four gold medals and a silver in the 1976 Olympics. "If you went up to 100 strangers in a supermarket, and asked about an Olympic swimmer, 99% of them will name Mark Spitz, if not 100.

"Joe Montana's name will not come up 99%. [Michael] Jordan, give him another 10 years. Tiger Woods, in 30 years, will not be the name on everyone's mouth. Mark Spitz is the ultimate name in swimming.

"Everybody loves the number seven."

Former USC coach, Peter Daland, who was the men's coach of the Olympic team in 1972, is 81 years old, but is still clocking times and walking the pool deck, coaching a Masters team in Thousand Oaks.

"It's going to take a lot to beat it," he said. "Don't expect it to happen, not in my life and not in yours."

How his seven gold medals compare to the list of other perhaps unassailable records--Joe DiMaggio's 56-consecutive game hitting streak, Wayne Gretzky's goals and points records, or Jack Nicklaus' number of victories in majors--is not something Spitz really considers a pertinent comparison.

Daland, for one, thought that setting world records in all seven races was a much more significant accomplishment.

"My success as an athlete was not in an event," Spitz said. "The DiMaggios, the Williamses, the Tiger Woods and Babe Ruths, it's a journey through your sports life. The last five, six years of my sports career was my journey. You don't get recognized for that journey.

"The last 11 races I ever swam, I had 11 world records. That's part of that journey."

His accomplishments--gold medals in three relays and four individual races, all world records, in 1972 at Munich, Germany--cast a shadow on his envious rivals and jealous teammates, often the same people. Even years later, his aura seemed to do the same to those poor new kids in the blocks.

One was Matt Biondi, who, by no fault of his own, became the first big male American name in swimming after Spitz when he competed at the 1988 Olympics.

Spitz wasn't swimming at Seoul, but his long shadow was there. Even though Biondi was three Olympics removed from the event, he vividly recalled the pressure during a conversation at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Biondi, a friend and hundreds of others were packed into a train compartment--like being jammed into a Speedo--on the way from Darling Harbor to Homebush Bay, going to the last day of the swim meet. He started talking on the train about the over-the-top expectations in 1988.

Hours after winning a bronze, Biondi watched television and learned from the commentator at about the same time as the rest of the world, that he was a failure for having finished third in the 200-meter freestyle. The words "failed" and "settle" became chiseled in his memory, and he was willing to tell a reporter, very nicely, how much the moment hurt him.

Never mind the fact he eventually won five gold medals. The pride-wounding culprit was NBC, which pointed out that he would not have a chance to win seven. There was the shadowy, elusive opponent he, nor anyone else, could ever beat.

"Mark was sort of my nemesis," Biondi says.

The idol understood.

"He [Biondi] was the first person to really have that kind of comparison pressure," Spitz said, rattling off Biondi's results, noting that he lost the 100-meter butterfly in Seoul by a hundredth of a second.

"Stuff can happen. I never had that. I never had to compare myself with somebody else."

Spitz is compared to no one else but himself. His legacy was so tough, he couldn't even compete against it when he resurfaced in a highly publicized comeback for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He did not qualify and is now a Los Angeles-area entrepreneur.

His career data is fascinating. All of his international and national competitions were analyzed during the Sydney Olympics. Just counting the finals, he said he swam in about 75 races, and recorded 35 world records.

Spitz is proud of that batting average, but don't get him started on baseball.

"My sport is not recognized from the statistical point as baseball is looked at. They've got some crazy statistics," he said. "It would be like saying I was on world-record pace through three laps of four. Who gives a damn?

"To me, that's just bogus. I almost want to throw up when I hear statistics like that. Is that what you have to do while you're waiting around for three hours, talking to people about stuff like that? Think about it: Mark Spitz was on world-record pace 3,900 times through two thirds of most of his races.

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