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All he touches turns to gold
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 1999
By the time Mark Spitz touched the tile at the end of his butterfly leg in the men's 400-meter medley relay on Sept. 4, 1972, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Another gold medal.
Another world record.
Seven of each.
A feat never achieved -- never even close -- by any Olympian.
Spitz brazenly had predicted as an 18-year-old four years earlier that he would win six gold medals in Mexico City, then failed to win an individual race. He came away with only two golds, from the 400 and 800 freestyle relays, plus silvers in the 100 butterfly and bronze in the 100 free.
By the start of the Munich Olympics, though, Spitz was expected to dominate the swimming events, but the 22-year-old Californian had learned his lesson. No bragging. No predicting. Just do it.
It began with an easy victory in the 200 butterfly. A few hours later he was the anchor on the 400 freestyle relay.
But doubt crept into his mind after that race. Teammate Jerry Heidenreich had swum his 100-meter leg .12 of a second faster than Spitz's.
Spitz won the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly and anchored the 800 relay. He was two golds from perfection, and the doubts were growing. He called his coach, Sherm Chavoor, and said he was tired.
"I said, "Coach, I think it would be better if I scratched myself from the 100-meter freestyle and saved myself for the 4-by-100 medley relay. Six gold medals isn't so bad.' "
Chavoor studied Spitz for a moment. "You mean five gold medals," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Listen, Mark," Chavoor said. "If you don't swim the 100 meters, you're out of the relay. You might as well go home now. They'll say you're chicken, that you're afraid to face Jerry Heidenreich."
Spitz reconsidered, entered the 100 freestyle, won the gold medal by beating Heidenreich by a few feet, then completed his extraordinary feat as part of the gold-medal 400 medley relay. Spitz's teammates in the relay lifted him on their shoulders and carried him around the pool in a victory lap.
"That picture with my teammates holding me high above them I enjoy more than the one that was taken with the seven gold medals around my neck," he said. "Having a tribute from your teammates is a feeling that can never be duplicated."
Spitz, with 11 medals, is tied with fellow swimmer Matt Biondi and shooter Carl Osburn for the most won by a U.S. Olympian.
The joy of total victory in Munich was shattered the day after he won his final gold when Arab commandos attacked the Olympic Village, killing two Israeli coaches, then kidnapping and eventually killing nine Israeli athletes. Spitz, who is Jewish, was placed under guard and hurriedly flown from Munich to London for fear he, too, might be a target.
Spitz retired from Olympic competition after 1972 and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame five years later. Then, at age 40, he attempted a return, saying he would try out for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But in competition against the younger Biondi and Tom Jager and Matt Biondi, he conceded defeat.