Mark Spitz was touted to win five or six gold medals at the 1968 Olympics. George Haines, the 1968 US men’s Olympic coach predicted the same. The coach who saw Spitz work tirelessly at the Santa Clara Swim Club had no doubts, Spitz would become a new sensation at Mexico City.
The promising swimmer’s campaign was a disaster. Spitz won two gold medals and none of them were individual medals – the two gold medals were in the relay events. He added a silver and bronze to the tally, however, he was ridiculed for not performing. It was a jolt for Mark Spitz, the experience galvanised his resolve to achieve for what he deserved.
Mark Spitz spent the four year gap between the Olympic editions studying at the University of Indiana where he led the school to three NCAA championships. Under the guidance of Sherman Chavoor, Spitz prepared ardently for the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“This guy has worked every day, 3-4-5 hours for 12-13 years,” Chavoor said. “He wants to accomplish something. He would like to surpass any other swimmer.”
Peter Daland, head coach of the United States men’s swimming team expected Spitz to be tougher than his performance in 1968. Spitz’ first swim in the 1972 Olympics was the 200-meter butterfly, an event in which he had finished last at the previous edition. He won his first individual gold medal by creating a world record.
An hour later, Mark Spitz won another gold as the America’s 400-meter relay team shattered the previous world record. More success followed, on August 29, 1972, the American Jew won his second individual gold medal to win the 200-meter freestyle – another world record.
After a day’s break, Spitz resumed his quest for more gold medals. The 100-meter butterfly event saw Spitz bettering his previous world record time, thereby won his fourth gold medal. Later that evening, he was part of the winning 800-meter freestyle relay team that created a world record giving Spitz his fifth gold medal in as many events he took part.
The show was not over. The pressure started to build. He confided – “It’s (pressure) tremendous, the pressure of not losing….. It’s reached a point where my self-esteem comes into it. I just don’t want to lose.”
Spitz didn’t want to swim the 100-meter freestyle as he feared, a loss might be looked as a failure. “Six medals is enough,” he said. “I’ve already won five. The sixth is a cinch – the medley relay. All I wanted to do was beat All-America golden boy Don Schollander’s record of four gold medals – and I’ve done it. Leave me alone.”
Sherman Chavoor thought otherwise. “If he drops out of one, I’ll break his damn neck,” said Chavoor.
Reluctantly, Mark Spitz took part in the 100-meter freestyle. He trailed Mike Wenden in the heats and semifinals. It was different in the finals. Perhaps, his confession to ABC’s Donna de Varona helped to clear his mind, “I know I say I don’t want to swim before every event but this time I’m serious. If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.”
Yet another world record, his sixth gold medal was to be his sweetest of them all. On September 4, the final day for swimming competitions, Spitz anchored his team for his seventh gold medal, winning in the 400-meter medley relay, creating yet another world record.
Mark Spitz had won a record seven medals in an edition. He was scheduled to speak the next day at 9 am at the press conference to discuss what he had achieved. The tragic news of the siege at 31 Connollystrasse was made aware to Spitz before he faced the newsmen.
“I don’t want to get up at that microphone,” he told a United States swimming coach. “I would be a perfect target for someone with a gun.”
Mark Spitz, an American Jew knew he would a prime target. Guarded by three American swimming officials, he responded to the questions. The gravity of the situation got to him, when he said to the coach, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Immediately, the American champion was escorted to the Fürstenfeldbruck airfield as the German government wanted him out of Munich at the earliest. He left for England. However, a few hours later, the same airfield witnessed bloodshed as the masked men, hostages and a policeman were killed in an airport shootout.
The 1972 Munich Olympics were meant to be ‘Games of Joy’ in an effort to erase the memories of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the World War II. However, the terror and death of hostages made the headlines.
As for Mark Spitz, his record of seven gold medals in a Single Olympics remained untouched until 2008 Beijing Olympics, when a swimmer and his countryman Michael Phelps won eight medals.
Quotes courtesy: The Olympic Story