Mark Spitz: How Phelps Can Win Big In Beijing

Mark Spitz shows five of his seven Olympic gold medals, Aug. 31, 1972. i i

hide captionSpitz shows five of his seven Olympic gold medals on Aug. 31, 1972, in Munich. Spitz captured seven swimming gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m, 4x200m, 100m and 200m butterfly, and 4x100m medley) at the 1972 games.

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Mark Spitz shows five of his seven Olympic gold medals, Aug. 31, 1972.

Spitz shows five of his seven Olympic gold medals on Aug. 31, 1972, in Munich. Spitz captured seven swimming gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m, 4x200m, 100m and 200m butterfly, and 4x100m medley) at the 1972 games.

Staff/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Phelps shakes hands with Mark Spitz i i

hide captionMichael Phelps shakes hands with Mark Spitz during the awards ceremony for the 200-meter individual medley during the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials on July 4. Phelps won, setting a new world record of 1:54.80.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Michael Phelps shakes hands with Mark Spitz

Michael Phelps shakes hands with Mark Spitz during the awards ceremony for the 200-meter individual medley during the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials on July 4. Phelps won, setting a new world record of 1:54.80.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Michael Phelps celebrates as fireworks go off after he won the final of the 200m individual medley i i

hide captionPhelps celebrates as fireworks go off after he won the final of the 200-meter individual medley and set a new world record at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Michael Phelps celebrates as fireworks go off after he won the final of the 200m individual medley

Phelps celebrates as fireworks go off after he won the final of the 200-meter individual medley and set a new world record at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

When the Beijing Olympics begin next weekend, sports fans won't have to wait long for drama. Saturday morning, Michael Phelps dives into the pool where he hopes to make history by surpassing Mark Spitz's record gold-medal count.

Phelps has a shot at eight gold medals, which would finally eclipse Spitz, the only swimmer to win seven gold medals at a single Olympics, in 1972.

Asked what Phelps is going through as he prepares for his Beijing events, Spitz predicted that the pressure would keep building as long as the young swimmer keeps winning. That's what happened for Spitz.

"I kind of was able to go under the radar screen for the first four days, until I had five gold medals," Spitz told Andrea Seabrook.

That's when the press descended on the swimming section at the Munich Games.

"And then, of course, there was a lot more pressure. I think this Michael Phelps has got a good handle on all the pressure," Spitz said. "He knows how to handle it; he's done very well."

In 1968, Spitz went to Mexico City with the hopes of winning six gold medals. Instead, he won two.

Part of what went wrong, Spitz said, was that he let each failure affect his next race, and the disappointments mounted. But in 1972, Spitz delivered on his potential early, and he kept winning his events.

"It's always a head game with athletes," Spitz said — particularly when the races begin. "It's certainly too late to do anything about training" once that happens.

Spitz's story is recounted in a new biography written by Richard J. Foster. It's called Mark Spitz: The Extraordinary Life of an Olympic Champion.

As for his trademark mustache, Spitz said, it began as a celebration of leaving his college team at Indiana, where the coach required his swimmers to be clean-shaven.

The facial hair also gave him an opportunity to play some mind games with his rivals on Russia's swim team.

At the Olympics, Spitz had been planning to shave his mustache before his first race.

But just before that was to happen, he shared a pool with the Russian team.

One of the coaches, Spitz recalled, wanted to know about the mustache — and why Spitz hadn't shaved it.

"No, it doesn't slow me down," Spitz answered. "As a matter of fact, it deflects the water away from my mouth. It allows me to get a lot more streamlined in the water. And that's why I broke three world records three weeks ago at the Olympic trials," he told the Russian coach.

"The next year, all of the Russian swimmers — the men, that is — had mustaches. And that's a true story," Spitz said.

It remains to be seen if Phelps will use that strategy as he tries to match or exceed Spitz's medal total.

"I think you're going to witness the greatest schooling, of him winning events, second only to the time when I swam 36 years ago, when I won by three and five body-lengths," Spitz said.

"And you're going to see that in some of the events that he's going to compete in."

What's crucial, Spitz said, is for Phelps to win his first race, and gain momentum – and establish a tone with the rest of the competition.

After all, that's how it worked for him, back in 1972.

"I really truly believe, the last couple of days" in Munich, Spitz said, "those guys were wondering and sorting it out, who's going to be first -– to take second place."

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