September 4, 1972 – Mark Spitz becomes the first competitor to win seven medals at a single Olympic Games.
At the start of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mark Spitz was already the holder of ten world records. He bodaciously predicted to the press that he would win six Gold Medals at this Olympics. However, he only won two Golds, both in team events: the 4×100-Meter Freestyle Relay and the 4×200-Meter Freestyle Relay in 7:52.33. He did take home the Silver Medal in the 100-meter butterfly, after being beaten by fellow American Doug Russell by a half second, despite holding the world record and having beaten Russell the previous ten times they had swum against each other that year. Because he lost to Russell, Spitz did not get to swim in the 4×100-meter medley relay, which gave Russell a second Gold Medal and the USA team another world record performance.
Disappointed, Spitz decided in 1969 to attend Indiana University to train with legendary swimming coach Doc Counsilman, his Olympic coach in Mexico City. While at Indiana U, Spitz won eight individual NCAA championships. In 1971, he won the James E. Sullivan Award as Best Amateur Athlete in the USA. Spitz also set world records during the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in early 1972. He earned the nickname “Mark The Shark” by his teammates.
At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Spitz again set a goal of six Gold Medals. But, he did even better, winning seven Olympic Gold Medals, the first competitor to win seven medals at a single Olympic Games. Even better, Spitz set a new world record in each of those seven events. Spitz had been reluctant to swim the 100-meter Freestyle fearing a less than Gold Medal finish. Just minutes before the 100-Meter, he confessed on to ABC Sports reporter Donna de Varona:
“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.”
Spitz won by half a stroke and set a new world record.
Spitz is one of five Olympians to win nine or more career Gold Medals: Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and American track and field star Carl Lewis also have nine. Michael Phelps has won the most with 18. Spitz’s record of seven Gold Medals in a single Olympics was not surpassed until Phelps won eight at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
During the Munich Massacre in the Olympic Village by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, Israeli racewalker Shaul Ladany awakened and alerted the American track coach, who called for the U.S. Marines to come and protect American Jewish Olympians Spitz and javelin thrower Bill Schmidt.
Following the Munich Olympics, Spitz retired at just 22-years-old. He is ranked 33 on the list of ESPN’s 50 Greatest Athletes, the only aquatic athlete.
When he was 41-years-old, Spitz decided on a comeback at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona after filmmaker Bud Greenspan offered him one million dollars if he qualified. In front of the documentary cameras, Spitz did not beat the qualifying limit, despite his time being better than his medal-winning times from 20 years earlier. He was two seconds slower than the requisite qualifying time.
In an era when swimmers, male and female, shaved their body hair, Spitz famously kept his mustache. He said he grew the mustache as a rebellion against the clean-cut look imposed on him. Spitz:
“It took a long time to grow. When I went to the Olympics, I had every intention of shaving the mustache off, but I realized I was getting so many comments about it, everybody was talking about it, that I decided to keep it. I had some fun with a Russian coach who asked me if my mustache slowed me down. I said, ‘No, as a matter of fact, it deflects water away from my mouth, allows my rear end to rise and make me bullet-shaped in the water, and that’s what had allowed me to swim so great.’ He’s translating as fast as he can for the other coaches, and the following year every Russian male swimmer had a mustache.”
The poster with Spitz wearing a red, white and blue Speedo and his Olympic medals is an all-time bestseller and was on the bedroom wall of many a gay boy in the 1970s.