Former Olympian Passes Torch to Phelps

Gold medalist Mark Spitz cheers on Michael Phelps to break his Olympic record.


Aug. 14, 2008 — -- Former U.S. Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz dove into the record books 36 years ago, winning seven gold medals, the most ever won in a single Olympic Games.

Spitz not only won but he set world records in each event. Since the 1972 games, his record has been untouchable, until this week when 23-year-old Michael Phelps dazzled the world, scoring five medals in five days in Beijing's "Water Cube." Like Spitz, he set world records with every stroke.

After winning six gold medals in Athens in 2004, Phelps was poised to challenge the career record for gold medals, held by Spitz, Carl Lewis and two others. With the 400-meter freestyle Tuesday, Phelps tied Spitz in career gold medals.

"There's only one other guy that knows what he's going through, and that's me," Spitz, 58, said, imagining what is racing through Phelps' mind at this moment.

Spitz has spoken with Phelps; the two recently exchanged congratulatory words at the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials July 4, when Phelps set a new world record in the 200-meter individual medley.

While the two athletes have the same physical prowess, their Olympic personalities couldn't be further apart.

Phelps is beloved by his teammates; this week they said Phelps didn't need to thank them when they helped him win gold in the relay. Spitz's team over the years remembered him as cocky and competitive.

But Spitz has parlayed his competitive spirit into entrepreneurial success. His latest venture is working as a pitchman, not for swimming, but for Botox, with fellow Olympic legend Nadia Comaneci. It's a surprising venture for an Olympian whose perfect swimmer's physique was once on magazine covers.

He says his fans are surprised to see how much the Olympian has changed since he was decorated in Munich.

"'I don't recognize you without your mustache,'" Spitz said he hears a lot. "And my comment to that is you expect me to look like my poster photo that was done in 1972."

Spitz has settled into life as an average American, trading the Olympic pool for the local gym. Married for 35 years, Spitz has two sons who are both athletes, one in basketball and the other in golf.

But growing up with a record-breaking Olympian as a dad wasn't always easy.

"There was this one time my wife asked me to go in and check on my oldest son. ... He was doing push-ups," Spitz said. "I did two, perfectly. And he stormed out of the room."

"I can't do one of those push-ups, those Olympic-type push-ups," Spitz recalled of his son's complaining.

But now it's Spitz who may soon be outdone by someone else.

"I want Michael to do the best he can do," Spitz said. "I don't want to add any more pressure to him, but I think he's going to win by margins that we've never seen."

As Phelps competes in Beijing, Spitz said he will be in a hotel room in Detroit watching Phelps on TV and his son's basketball game.

"I sort of have this vicarious feeling in the back of my head," Spitz said. "It's time for someone else."