“Come on, Mark. Race him.”

Mark Spitz looked over the pool and grinned. He was filming a piece for ABC-TV and Rowdy Gaines, preparing for the upcoming LA Olympics, was in the water, working out. One of the coaches playfully suggested that Spitz, 34, drop the microphone and show Gaines, 25, some of his old magic. “Come on, Mark. Race him.” Spitz thought: Why not? There he was, a network pretty boy; he probably hated guys like him back when he was competing, and there was all this water, calling his name . . .

Go! Fifty meters. Spitz won. Another race. Go! Fifty meters. He won again. Gaines swears he was “going all out.” They raced three more times, and all were close. Gaines was stunned. So was Spitz. After all, he had given up racing a dozen years ago.

“And they call me the old man of swimming,” Gaines said, shaking his head.

That was 1984. Spitz never forgot it. “To be honest,” he says now,
“that’s probably the single biggest reason I’m trying this.” He is talking to me from LA, where he has a clothing business and where the phone has been ringing off the hook. The reason is simple: The biggest thing to ever come out of a pool is now stepping back in. Spitz wants to compete again, in Barcelona, 1992, when he will be 42 years old.

And he thinks he can win. Body built for swimming

I had never spoken to Mark Spitz before, but I could see his face as I pressed the receiver to my ear. It was the face on that famous poster, with him bare-chested and bronzed, tucked tightly in his swim trunks, smiling from under his mustache as the seven gold medals dangled around his neck. This was the ’70s, when we’d stopped caring so much about the good of society and started caring more about ourselves. Achievement was in. And Spitz was the ultimate in achievement.

Seven races entered; seven races won. The poster of him became a symbol for American glory, the same way a poster of Farah Fawcett in swimwear would soon become the symbol of American sex appeal.

But, like Fawcett, Spitz faded. New heroes arose. I had heard he was in dental school. Then I’d heard he was in real estate. I knew he’d made a lot of money on endorsements, but the products lasted longer than he did. Spitz was always a little stiff out of water, like a dying fish, and no surprise, since his father put him in the pool as an infant. “Mark,” his dad would say, “how many lanes in swimming?” And he would answer “six.”

“And how many lanes win?”

“One. Only one.”

He grew up with chlorine under his fingernails. He set all sorts of records but made few friends in the pool. By his first Olympics, in 1968, he was already billed as enfant terrible and reporters privately rejoiced when he won just two gold medals, both for relays. But, four years later, in Munich, he blew them all away. Tall, lithe, with the sinewy muscles of a man destined for water, he was brilliant. Seven golds. Seven world records.

And then he retired. Did his miracle and quit. This was a few years before it became fashionable to study every fiber of an Olympic athlete’s body, and so, biologically, no one really knew how good he was.

We’re about to find out.

“Unlike a lot of sports, you can get faster in swimming as you get older,” he insists. “Studies show that. My body is built for this sport. Plus, I’m only shooting for one event this time, not seven. It will be so much less wear and tear.”

The one event is the 100-meter butterfly — the windmill- like stroke which an average guy can do for about six seconds before gasping for breath. When Spitz won that event in 1972, the other swimmers saw only his feet. His time from Munich, had it counted in last year’s Olympic Games in Seoul, would have given him eighth place. Sixteen years later? That’s remarkable. Symbol for couch potatoes

The sports pages are loaded with failed comeback stories. But, there are swim coaches who believe Spitz could pull this off. No one but Spitz can answer the big question: Why?

“First of all,” he says, “I don’t see this as a comeback. That would imply that I failed, or that I didn’t quite get there. I got there. This is a whole different thing.

“I just find this a challenge. And based on the reaction from people so far, they’re rooting for me. I’ve become a sort of symbol for couch potatoes everywhere. It’s the middle-age syndrome, I guess.”

Spitz says this, and I am not sure if he is talking about us or himself. I see in him a superb athlete who is still in great shape. I also see a man who has a clothing company, a wife, a kid, and who, on his next birthday, will

turn 40. I see a lot of men like that. They mostly wish they were younger.

So be it. But this we know about Spitz: He has always looked in the pool and seen his own reflection.Glory, someone once said, is the most addicting habit. I hope he makes it. I hope he wins a gold medal. But I doubt he’s doing this for the couch potatoes of America. He’s doing it for himself.

“Did you ever think about making a comeback as a dentist?” I ask him.

“Never,” he says.

I didn’t think so.

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