That comeback Mark Spitz tried? Two years ago? Right, that one. It failed. Technically. This we know because 25 men will swim for the United States in the Barcelona Olympics that start in two weeks and Spitz is not among them. “You could say I didn’t ‘win’ what I attempted,” Spitz said.
OK, you didn’t win. But that doesn’t close the account.
After all, Spitz’s was the tsunami of comebacks. This wasn’t big George Foreman fighting fat and scarfing burgers or Nolan Ryan throwing a baseball real hard, this was the greatest swimmer in history returning after 17 years off and threatening to make the U.S. Olympic team at the age of 42 in a sport whose essence is speed. And threatening to do it by dint of will, failing all else. “There’s an awful lot of people out there wondering about me,” he said two years ago, after a workout at UCLA.
This was in an interview with Newsday, one of hundreds Spitz conducted during his comeback. “Amazing stuff, especially at the beginning,” said UCLA coach Ron Ballatore, who worked with Spitz. The Europeans were particularly enthralled, though Spitz ultimately got himself on the cover of Parade and the inside of Sports Illustrated and Esquire.
Anyway, it turns out Spitz’s logic was flawed, which is not to say his ego has been damaged. But more on that later.
He reckoned from the start that his body would respond as always, as it did when he won seven gold medals at the ’72 Games in Munich, Germany. As it did when, at the landlubbing age of 34, he jumped into a California pool for an ABC story and beat ’84 sprint gold medalist Rowdy Gaines. Moreover, his was always the steeliest resolve in any pool.
Besides, look at all those old boxers.
“I wish my sport had some way in which I could have 12 different races, each with a minute’s rest in between. You have to understand that to come back and make $8 million to stand up for 12 rounds is different from what I was trying.”
Here is what Spitz did: He got back into a bludgeoning daily training schedule with teen-agers, and eventually took his comeback onto national television for pre-fab 50-meter butterfly races against Tom Jager and Matt Biondi, two of the best sprinters in the world and both current members of the U.S. Olympic Team. He lost them both, convincingly, but made $25,000.
He raced probably 20 times in all, mostly in Southern California, but occasionally for big guarantees in Europe. Best he did was 58.03 seconds in the 100 butterfly, his race of choice for the comeback (so chosen because his 1972 world record of 54.27 has been lowered only to 52.84). The theory wasn’t bad: Pablo Morales won this year’s U.S. Trials in only 54.05, with Melvin Stewart second in 54.06.
“If I had been able to get down there,” Spitz said, “I would have been competitive.” Instead, he didn’t even qualify for the Trials, although 58-something isn’t exactly drowning.
And he learned something, as much as it stings him to admit it. “Somewhere between the ages of 34, when I beat Gaines, and 39, I lost what everybody obviously loses sometime: quickness.” And more than that, he lost his nerve, like a golfer with the yips. “When I swam against Jager, I had him scared to death,” Spitz said, “and that should have been to my advantage. But I had lost my competitive way. I was like a 13-year-old out there.”
But don’t expect contrition. Not from Mark Spitz. He is convinced that his comeback attempt helped illustrate the potential for longevity. Jager and Morales (who himself took off for 3 1/2 years) both are 27 and Biondi is 26, once ancient for swimmers. And the publicity he engendered? “Nothing but positive for the sport,” he said.
There was the smell of self-promotion about the whole affair. Spitz said he earned “not even a million dollars,” from the comeback, “but some pretty good money.” And he isn’t embarrassed for trying or for failing. “I didn’t tarnish anything I had done.”
Best of all: He has not retired yet. Not trying for the Olympics anymore. Just to swim 54.27 again, now that the pressure is off. “I’m the healthiest 42-year-old in the world,” he said. “At least as far as swimmers go.” Call it a compromise with aging. You were expecting, what, surrender?