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In swimming, he was Mark of greatness

Spitz won seven golds at the 1972 Olympics, but he was pushed by fellow Americans in three events.

August 03, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Steve Genter, Jerry Heidenreich and Gary Hall Sr. have morphed into Ryan Lochte and Ian Crocker.

Yes, 36 years later.

The first three, in no particular order, were the ones standing between Mark Spitz and a record seven Olympic gold medals at Munich in 1972. At the upcoming Summer Games, Lochte and Crocker will be the main protagonists standing between Michael Phelps and Spitz, conceivably blocking Phelps' bid to match or surpass Spitz.

"Thirty-six years is a long time," Spitz said recently. "I would have never thought that I would be sitting here, if someone could have said: What do you think you'll be doing in 2008?

"As a matter of fact, it just dawned on me that it was 40 years ago I was at training camp, and I was going, 'Wow!' That's almost twice as old as Michael Phelps is now. Wow, I swam a long time ago."

Of course, Spitz has considered all the modern-day possibilities, namely, how he would have done with the Speedo LZR Racer, joking: "Give me one of those suits."

For the record, Spitz does think Phelps has an "even better chance" of accomplishing the feat. This is based on Phelps' Olympic experience, dating to his debut in Sydney and his six gold medals in Athens four years ago.

Spitz won two gold medals -- both on relays -- in his first Olympics at Mexico City in 1968, widely considered a "failure" because he had been expected to win six golds.

"He is more experienced and in some ways more experienced than I was going in to doing it because he won six gold medals and I only won two the Olympics before I won seven," Spitz said.

". . . I would expect to see him win by margins and set times that have never been done before, and he'll be unbelievable. That's what I suspect is going to happen."

Spitz spoke about his key rivals in 1972. Despite his apparent deep and seemingly unshakable self-confidence, he admitted to being "always worried about somebody."

One of those threats, in his least favorite event, was an American in the 200-meter butterfly.

"That was Gary Hall, as in Gary Hall Sr., not Jr.," Spitz said, speaking about the father of the two-time Olympic champion in the 50 freestyle.

Have to educate that new generation, after all.

They went 1-2 in Munich, and there was mutual respect and friendship between the men. Hall beat Spitz at nationals in 1970, and the newly released biography "Mark Spitz: The Extraordinary Life of an Olympic Champion" said they refrained from head games when they raced.

Still, friendship had its limits in Munich and Spitz decided to close the sliding door separating their adjoining rooms, saying, in the book: "Stakes were high for both of us. I didn't want to have to censor myself around Gary and I didn't want to wonder about what he was doing. . . . I told Gary it was nothing personal, and we could open the door after the race. He said, 'No problem' and went about his business."

Genter's journey to the blocks in Munich makes the phrase "profiles in courage" look almost like an understatement. Most of one chapter in the Spitz biography, written by Richard Foster, talks about how Genter, of UCLA, suffered a collapsed lung several days before his race, landed in the hospital and, after doctors repaired the lung, staged a miraculous recovery.

This set the stage for the 200 freestyle, and Genter was leading with 25 meters to go -- incredibly, some of his stitches had ripped open after the second turn -- but his stroke suddenly "deteriorated" and he finished second.

Second-place finishes are hardly created equal. Genter was regarded as a hero with his result, and rightly so.

But the man who finished second to Spitz in the 100 freestyle, Heidenreich, felt like a failure and instead of being told that he inspired pride, he was informed the opposite by his demanding father. Heidenreich committed suicide in 2002 at age 52 by taking pills after having suffered a stroke.

"He was the biggest threat to Mark in the 100 freestyle," Foster said. "And Mark was afraid of him. For years later, he was tormented by Spitz."

In all, Spitz won nine gold medals, one silver and one bronze in his two Olympic appearances. All seven of his gold medals in Munich were world records, perhaps so lofty a bar that even Phelps won't be able to vault over it.

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lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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