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The Mark Spitz You Don’t Know

Icons | September 16, 2018

American swimmer, Mark Spitz (via Getty Images)

Before Michael Phelps became America’s best-known swimmer, there was Mark Spitz. A nine-time Olympic champion and world record holder, Spitz gained international fame when he won seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics. This achievement stood until Phelps earned eight medals at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. Spitz, with his impressive mustache, enjoyed a degree of popularity after the Olympics were over. While his achievements in the Olympic swimming pool are well-known, there are aspects of Mark Spitz’ life that you may not know. 

That Famous Mustache? It was Spitz’s way of Rebelling

During the 1960s and 1970s, competitive swimmers removed all their body hair, believing that the hair created drag as they were swimming through the water. Smoother, hair-free bodies were sleeker and therefore, faster. But that didn’t stop Mark Spitz from growing his trademark mustache. Spitz admits that the only reason he grew his mustache was because one of his college swimming coaches told him he couldn’t. He added that sporting a mustache was his personal form of rebellion against the clean-cut norms expected of him in college. 

American swimmer, Mark Spitz (Photo by Rzepka/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Spitz Almost Shaved Off His Mustache Before the 1968 Olympics…But He Decided to Have A Little Fun With It

Before traveling to Mexico City to compete in the 1968 Summer Olympics, Mark Spitz intended to shave his mustache, but then he noticed that his facial hair was the talk of the games. Spitz even had some fun with one of the Russian swimming coaches. That coach asked Spitz if his mustache slowed him down when he was swimming. Spitz jokingly replied, “'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 laughed as the Russian coach turned to talk rapidly, in Russian, to the other coaches. The scene became even funnier when Spitz noticed that, by the next swimming season, nearly every male swimmer for Russia had a mustachio. 

Spitz’s First International Race was at the “Jewish Olympics”

A member of the Jewish faith, Mark Spitz’s first international competition was at the Maccabiah Games, a multi-sport competition for Jewish athletes. Spitz was only 15 when he traveled to Tel Aviv to compete in the 1965 Maccabiah Games. At this event, Spitz won four gold medals and walked away with the honor of being named the game’s ‘most outstanding athlete’. 

Image of a Palestinian terrorist during the Munich Massacre.

U. S. Marines Protected Spitz after the Munich Massacre

During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Palestinian terrorists captured and killed eleven Jewish Israeli athletes. The terrible event sparked fear that other Jewish athletes would be targeted. During the Munich Massacre, Shaul Ladany, a member of the Israeli track and field team, awoke to the sounds of the massacre. He got word to Bill Bowerman, the American track coach, about the attack. Bowerman called in the Marines to protect the Jewish American athletes at the Olympics, including javelin thrower, Bill Schmidt, and Spitz. 

Spitz was Disappointed with his 1968 Olympic Performance

Prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Mark Spitz held ten world records, which may have made him a bit cocky. He boldly predicted that he would earn six gold medals at the 1968 Olympic Games. He only won two. Disappointed and embarrassed, Spitz vowed to return to the Olympic stage in 1972 as a stronger, faster, more disciplined swimmer. 

Spitz took his Disappointment and went to College with it

After his dismal performance at the 1968 Olympics, Spitz knew what he had to do to become a better swimmer. He enrolled in Indiana University in January of 1969 so he could train and compete for the Indiana Hoosiers’ legendary swim coach, Doc Counsilman. Spitz excelled as a collegiate athlete, earning eight individual NCAA titles and the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the country. Spitz later said that his decision to attend Indiana University and swim for Doc Counsilman was “the biggest decision of my life…and the best.”

Spitz’s Seven Gold Medals at the 1974 Olympics Helped Him Become a Pin-Up Model

After winning a record seven gold medals at the 1974 Munich Olympics…and setting new world records in each of those seven events…Mark Spitz looked to capitalize on his fame. A photograph of the handsome swimmer, wearing only a pair of swim trunks, his seven gold medals, and his trademark mustache, was made into a poster. Sales of the poster skyrocketed, turning Spitz into the hottest pin-up model of his day. 

The Soviets Accused Spitz of Product Placement During the Medal Ceremony

One of the events for which Spitz earned a gold medal was the 200-meter freestyle race. When Spitz arrived at the podium for the medal ceremony, he was barefoot and was carrying his shoes in his hand. As the National Anthem started to play, Spitz set the shoes down. But as soon as the song ended, he picked up his shoes and waved to his fans. Although Spitz maintained that it was an innocent gesture, the Soviets accused him of using the podium for product placement. They called for the International Olympic Committee to investigate the incident. They determined that Spitz had not been paid by a shoe company. Indeed, it appeared as though his shoes were quite old and well-worn. In the end, Spitz was cleared of the charged. 

Spitz and his wife Appeared on an Episode of Emergency!

Following the 1972 Olympics, Mark Spitz was a hot commodity and Hollywood was calling. He made special appearances on a number of popular TV shows in 1973 and 1974. One of these appearances was on the wildly popular television drama, Emergency! For his episode, Spitz played the role of Pete Barlow and Spitz’s real-life wife, Suzy, played Barlow’s wife on the show. Spitz’s acting career never really took off. Instead, he worked as a sports announcer for ABC Sports. He covered both the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.