No swimmer in history has had more expected of him than Mark Andrew Spitz.
Born in Modesto, California on February 10, 1950 as the oldest of three children, his family moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he learned to swim at Waikiki beach at age two. The family returned to Sacramento, California when Spitz was six and he took swim lessons at the YMCA. At nine, his father took him to Arden Hills Swim Club to train under Sherm Chavoor, who would become a life-long mentor and would coach seven Olympic medal winners including Spitz. Before he was 10, he held 17 national age-group records and one world record. He was named the best 10-and-under swimmer in the world. The family moved to Santa Clara when Spitz was 14 so he could train at the famed Santa Clara Swim Club while Mark’s father retained his old job, making the 80 mile commute for work each day. Spitz participated in his first international competition at the 1965 Maccabiah Games when he was 15 years old; he won four gold medals and was named most outstanding athlete at the meet. One year later, he won the first of his 24 AAU titles at the National AAU Championships. In 1967, he won five golds at the Pan-American games in Canada and later set a new world record in the 400 freestyle at a meet in California. He attended Santa Clara High School and, during his four years there, held national high school records in every stroke and in every distance.
Much was expected of the young phenom entering the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, having already set 10 world records. The brash 18-year-old predicted he would win six gold medals but fell woefully short, winning silver and bronze in individual competitions and two golds in relay events. Humbled, he decided to attend Indiana University to train with the legendary James “Doc” Counsilman and later called his choice “the biggest and best decision of my life”. He won eight individual NCAA titles while at IU and helped the Hoosiers win four straight national championships. Spitz won 4 AAU titles in a single meet in 1971, three of them in world record time. One week later, he entered a meet and swam those four same events, this time setting four new world records. He won the Sullivan Award in 1971 as top amateur athlete in the U.S. and was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972. By the spring of 1972, he had set 23 world and 35 United States swimming records.
Even more was expected of “Mark the Shark” heading into the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and Spitz did not disappoint, winning gold medals in all seven events in which he competed. What’s more, he set a new world record in each and every event, a feat that had never been accomplished in any sport. His seven races took place in a span of eight days and made Spitz the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympic Games, an honor he held until Michael Phelps’ eight-gold-medal performance 36 years later in Beijing. Over the course of his career, Mark Spitz won 11 Olympic medals, nine of them gold, and set 33 official world records. He retired from competition after the 1972 Olympics at age 22. He was elected into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983 and in 1999 was ranked #33 on ESPN SportsCentury’s list of 50 greatest athletes, the only aquatic athlete to make the list.
On this date in 1972, Mark Spitz won the last of his seven gold medals in the Munich games in the 4 x 100 meter medley relay. Competing in the third [butterfly] leg for the U.S team, he entered the water even with his East German opponent and, over the course of 100 meters, beat him by two seconds to help the U.S set a new world record.