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'Mark the Shark' devours all

ESPN staff
March 8, 2012
Mark Spitz was peerless at the 1972 Games © Getty Images
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With British swimmers battling for qualification London 2012 at the British Championships, we look back to 1972 when a man dominated his sport

Munich - an Olympic Games forever tainted by tragedy. Mere hours before 11 Israeli athletes were massacred by Palestinian terrorists, Mark Spitz swam his way into sport's Hall of Fame by winning an unprecedented seven gold medals.

After a disappointing showing four years earlier in Mexico City, winning two team golds when he predicted he'd land six in total, the American was a man on a mission. Focused and determined, he appeared to take little joy in shattering world records and beating off all-comers.

Spitz was marked out from an early age as a potential star, lowering one world record before turning 10. The accolades kept coming for the Californian and he progressed to winning gold medals at team level at the 1968 Olympics.

But Munich was all about Spitz, the individual. The swimmer who couldn't, and wouldn't, be beaten was simply too fast and too good for all his rivals.

Seven events, seven victories and a world record in each. The 200 fly was his first success, despite coming last in that race four years earlier, and he proved peerless in the 200 free, 100 fly and 100 free as well.

Before the final freestyle, he admitted to a reporter: "If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be failure."

The relays - 4 x 100, 4 x 200 freestyle and 4 x 100 medley - brought more first places on the podium and rewrote the record books. Yet there seemed little camaraderie with his team-mates, in fact he appeared distant from them when the cameras were rolling. The all-American hero would, indeed, have little time to celebrate as he was flown away from Germany amid fears for his safety - the shocking Israeli killings caused panic that the Jewish athlete could be a target himself.

If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be failure."
Mark Spitz felt it had to be perfection or nothing

"I don't know if I'd do it again," he told reporters when he should have been basking in the glory. "But I don't have to."

Despite being only 22, Spitz retired at the top, making only a brief comeback when attempting - and failing - to land a place on the USA team for the Barcelona Olympics at the ripe old age of 41.

Michael Phelps, of course, would better the record of the man nicknamed 'Mark the Shark' with an eight-gold haul many years later in Beijing. The streamlined uber-swimmer cuts a very different figure to the moustachioed Spitz, all tan and star-spangled-banner swimsuit. And the styles are very different. Spitz thrashed around in the water, stretching every sinew, his body betraying any attempts to conceal the amount of effort and graft required to thrust towards the finish.

"Swimming the last 25 metres, I just kept thinking, 'There's one less stroke, one less stroke.' When I hit the wall, up and over, right over the top, just the way I wanted to go. I didn't want to swim off to the side like everyone else. I wanted to leave the pool as fast as I got in it."

Perhaps Spitz had been programmed to swim as soon as he had learned to walk. Maybe he was totally consumed by the desire to be the best and sweep the board like nobody had ever achieved before him. His father Norman Spitz, credited with pushing his son to perfection, stressed: "Swimming isn't everything. Winning is. If people don't like it, to hell with them."

But his son left an indelible impression on the Olympics and sport in general. British icon Sir Steven Redgrave is just one athlete who was inspired by the American's drive and dedication.

Mark Spitz set out to cement a place in swimming history and, in Munich, he did just that, even if he may not have won many popularity contests. Gary Hall, who swam with him, said: "He came across egotistical and he's really not that way. Mark's driving force was to be a winner, achieve stardom and fame." There's no doubt it was mission accomplished on all three fronts.

What happened next?
'Mark the Shark' quit the pool after his Munich masterclass, aside from that brief comeback attempt in the early nineties. When his television appearances and lucrative endorsements dried up, he became a motivational speaker and corporate spokesman. After retiring, he admitted: "Every time I'm anywhere near a pool, people will come up and ask me to swim 20 laps just for the hell of it. So I don't swim much." In 1999, Spitz earned recognition from ESPN who ranked him No. 33 on ESPN SportsCentury 50 Greatest Athletes, the only aquatic athlete to make the list.

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