Mark Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective
Mark Spitz, who set a standard for Olympic excellence by winning all of his seven events in world-record fashion at the Munich 1972 Games, attended neither the Beijing 2008 Olympics nor the London 2012 Olympics.
And he’s not certain he will be at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“I hope to go to Rio,” Spitz said, adding he’s received inquiries from people or organizations about possibly appearing at the first Olympics in South America next summer.
The last we heard of Spitz at the Olympics was Athens 2004, when a 19-year-old named Michael Phelps came close to emulating Spitz’s feat from 1972.
Phelps won eight medals -- six golds -- and made eye contact with Spitz at the outdoor Olympic Aquatic Center after his final individual swim in the Greek capital.
Spitz, reportedly in spectator stands, held up four fingers to Phelps, for four individual gold medals.
“I haven’t talked to him in years,” he said of Phelps in a phone interview Friday, ahead of Spitz’s appearance at the DohaGOALS Forum in Los Angeles, July 25-27.
Spitz discussed Phelps and more swimming topics. Here are excerpts:
OlympicTalk: When was the last time to you saw Michael Phelps in person?
Spitz: I was at the Laureus Sports for Good event in Rio de Janeiro [in March 2013], and Michael was there for the Laureus Awards, but I had a previous engagement and had to leave a day before the presentation of the awards. So we did a virtual reality presentation. It appeared as though we were both present. So the last time we were together, in theory, was there two and a half years ago. He arrived, and we were there at the same time, but our paths didn’t cross because I was doing this crazy [virtual reality] presentation. I was sort of locked up in a studio doing that. Other than that, it’s been some time. I think the last time I spoke with him [in person] was a Golden Goggles presentation to him, but that’s been a number of years.
Editor’s Note: It appears the last time Spitz was at the Golden Goggle Awards was in 2007, where he did see Phelps. Spitz missed the Beijing 2008 Olympics and spoke with Phelps via TV connection from Detroit.
OlympicTalk: The rules for amateurism were different 40 years ago, but if you had a carrot to chase, such as Phelps’ record 18 Olympic gold medals and 22 medals overall, would it have impacted your decision to retire after Munich 1972 at age 22?
Spitz: If there were opportunities that I could have swum in the professional sense, it certainly would have been in my best interest, not only for my career but for sponsors, to continue in the sport a number of years and that would have led me to the next Olympics to participate in, the Montreal Games in 1976. The $64,000 question is what would I have swum there, and the answer is not that many events [as the seven in 1972]. That’s arduous to do. I would have picked a couple of [individual] events around making the relay teams. I would’ve swum maybe the 100m and 200m freestyle events, the same distances as relays and probably stuck with the 100m butterfly and would have concentrated on the events I would probably win gold medals. I would’ve only been 26 years old. That would’ve set a new standard of swimming way past 22, 23, 24, for that time. Whether I would’ve had the vision for the next Olympic Games at 30, the U.S. boycott [of Moscow 1980] would’ve obviously quelled the notion that I could’ve won more gold medals.
The Soviet gymnast with the elusive number of medals [Larissa Latynina‘s record 18 Olympic medals from 1956-64 surpassed by Phelps at London 2012] was never really brought to my attention, or anybody’s attention, until Michael started to approach that number. So I didn’t really think about it. I had won more medals than anybody at that time in one Olympic Games. That was an opportunity for an exit stage left in my career [with 11 Olympic medals].
OlympicTalk: Did you know that Phelps recently swam in the Munich 1972 pool?
Spitz: No, I didn’t. That must have felt strange for him.
I can sort of identify with that feeling. I went to the Olympic stadium where he got the eight gold medals [Beijing’s Water Cube] in December 2008, a few months after those Olympics. It was a hair-raising experience for me. The main pool for swimming competition had been drained, and there was this display, a water works fountain device that was put in the middle of the competition pool with the water brought up about halfway. It looked like a display going into the Mirage hotel or something like that in Las Vegas. There was this gigantic orchestra area for having concerts, like classical music concerts. They didn’t want the facility to go to waste. I still obviously knew what the pool was, and it looked like the unique design. I said, hey, this is where it all happened.
Editor’s Note: After the Beijing 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, the Water Cube hosted a sound and light show spectacular, “involving a Beijing orchestra, water fountains and laser beams,” according to Reuters, citing the People’s Daily.
OlympicTalk: From when you met Phelps at the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials to Phelps now near the end of his career, can you put it into your unique perspective?
Spitz: It’s easy for me to remember what he did as an athlete, because he did everything double that I did. I was in two Olympics; he’s been in four. I won nine gold medals. He’s got twice as many with 18. I won one silver; he won two. I won one bronze; he won two.
But more importantly, the first Olympics he was in he got zero medals [in Sydney 2000, when Phelps was 15 years old]. So all of his medals were in three Olympics. So what I did in two Olympics, he doubled that in three Olympics. That’s just one extra Olympics. From that point of view, hands down, I’m going to get run over by his success. I did something before he was born that became a benchmark that he could judge himself by. How could that be bad for me?
I still believe he’s got gold medals in him. I still think he’s the best 100m butterflier [Phelps had the world’s fastest 100m butterfly in 2014, coming off a 20-month competitive retirement].
OlympicTalk: If you could be part of a dream relay, which three swimmers from history would you choose to team with?
Spitz: Johnny Weissmuller, Michael Phelps and Matt Biondi.
OlympicTalk: Missy Franklin said she first met you in an elevator at the Laureus Awards last year. What do you remember about that?
Spitz: She was actually in the elevator with her father, and the two of them are quite taller than me [Franklin is listed as 6-1 and likely inherited her height from her father, a former college football player; Spitz is listed at 6-0]. I’ve shrunk. She didn’t recognize me. She was probably thinking I would be as tall as the male swimmers she’s accustomed to seeing. I said, “Missy you’re here for the Laureus Awards?.” She said yeah. I said, “Hi, I’m Mark Spitz.” She had that funny youthful giggle. [Franklin has said she “fan-girled” when she first noticed Spitz]
OlympicTalk: What do you think of Katie Ledecky swimming so fast she would qualify for the Olympic trials in men’s events?
Spitz: It’s amazing because she broke out on the scene when she was 15 years old in London [winning 800m freestyle gold in 2012]. In the beginning when you’re 15 and nobody’s looking at you, you’re the hunter. The next thing you know, you’re breaking world records and a gold-medal winner and then you’re the hunted. It’s a little different situation, but she’s gone to World Championships and done very well competing and winning. I would suspect that if she stays healthy she would do the same thing. It’s funny that she’s already seasoned and she’s only 18.