Skip to main content
Original Issue


That was the credo Arnold Spitz instilled in his son and until the '68 Olympics Mark Spitz lived up to it. Now the troubled boy has matured and is winning for himself

The story of MarkSpitz was the unhappiest one of the 1968 Olympics. He came to Mexico Cityballyhooed as' swimming's new glamour boy—a child of 18 whose good looks andextraordinary ability were flawed only by his reputation as a spoiled brat. Itwas predicted that Spitz would win an unprecedented six gold medals. He didn'tcome close. Not only did he fail to win an individual race, he finished last inthe 200-meter butterfly, an event in which he holds the world record. Few feltsorry for Spitz. In fact, a number of his teammates rejoiced at hisdownfall.

Now Spitz is 20and once more acclaimed as the world's finest swimmer. At Indiana, where he isa pre-dental student, he is again turning in times of the sort that enabled himto set or tie 12 individual world records, of which four still stand. Moreover,Spitz has grown up. He is no longer a pain in the neck.

This change beganto occur in January 1969, when Spitz left his home in Santa Clara, Calif. toenroll at Indiana. After groundwork by Coach James E. (Doc) Counsilman, theIndiana swimmers accepted him, and he responded by winning three individualevents—two in American record time—to lead the Hoosiers to their secondstraight NCAA championship. "That was like a comeback for me," saysSpitz. "People knew that I wasn't living in the past. They knew that I wasliving right now."

In addition hefound a father figure in Counsilman. Until coming to Indiana, Spitz' life hadbeen dictated by a pair of intense, strong-willed men: his father, Arnold, whotaught him to win, and his coach at Santa Clara, George Haines, who taught himto swim. As Spitz grew closer to Indiana and Counsilman, he grew away from hisold self—and his old ties—in California.

"Frankly, Docreally hasn't helped me that much with my strokes," says Spitz, "butthen I think when you become a champion you become a free thinker and youreally don't need a coach in a sense. What Doc has done for me is to make memore friendly. I think I've really grown up in that way. I wasn't friendlybefore because I was told I was dumb and stupid, so I began putting on, saying,'Oh, look at me, I'm something.' I got tabbed as being young and cocky when Iwas 14 and beating guys 19, but I don't think it was hatred, justjealousy."

"I've alwayshad a soft spot in my heart for Mark because he's gotten a raw deal," saysCounsilman. "When he came to me his self-image was pretty low, and I felthe didn't have a true picture of himself. He felt very competent athletically,but he didn't think he was very smart because some people had told him hewasn't—and he didn't feel competent socially. Here, though, everybody likeshim, and he's gained confidence intellectually and socially."

Mark Spitz' normalchildhood ended at 8½, when his father enrolled him in a swimming program atthe Sacramento YMCA. When he was 9 he worked out an hour or an hour and 15minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with double workouts on Saturday.At 10, he worked out every day for an hour and a half.

"It was a bigparty then," Spitz recalls. "Man, you were in competition. That was theliving end. It was something to be playing a little touch football on the lawnand tell your friends what you did at workout that day. When you're small youdon't know anything."

As Spitz beganbeating older boys the force behind him was his father. The elder Spitz mighthave been a good swimmer himself ("He has a nice technique," says Mark)but he never had the time, coming up the hard way. Although he did not graduatefrom college, Arnold Spitz got by—and eventually succeeded—by being tough andaggressive, both mentally and physically. Now he is the well-paid operationsmanager for Schnitzer Steel Products in Oakland, a large scrap-metal firm thatspecializes in grinding up cars and squeezing them into neat little blocks."In business," says Arnold Spitz proudly, "I'm known as a forcefulindividual."

When Mark was 9his father (Mark calls him "my father," not "dad") took him tothe Arden Hills Swim Club near Sacramento, where he could learn under thecelebrated Sherm Chavoor. Even this early Arnold Spitz was drilling into hisson the importance—the necessity—of not just swimming but winning.

"Mark,"his father would say, "how many lanes in a pool?"

"Six," theyoungster would reply.

"And how manylanes win?"

"One, onlyone."

Today Arnold Spitzwants nobody to be mistaken about the importance of the role he and his wifeLenore played in Mark's development, but nothing disturbs him quite so much asthe criticism that he pushed his son too hard.

"The greatestmotivating factor in Mark's life has been Lenore and myself," Arnold Spitzsaid recently. "If George Haines is naive enough or foolish enough to thinkhe created Mark, he's crazy. Because of what I've given of myself, this is whatI created. He's a gorgeous human being, he's a beautiful person, it's terrible.You think this just happens? I've got my life tied up in this kid. You think Icreated a monster? He's beautiful, he's exceptional. There is nothing wrongwith parents giving to their children. If people don't like it, the hell with'em. You only have a few years to give, and now, in Mark's case, it's past, hewon't come home any more. Now he is being taken over by himself and the othershe is surrounding himself with, like Doc.

"There was apoint when I pushed him, I guess, but if I hadn't pushed my son he would neverhave been at Santa Clara. If I pushed Mark, it was part of his development—andyou know why I pushed him? Because he was so great, that's why. I can't believeany parent would say, 'Honey, if you're tired, you don't have to go toworkout.' A child who has his parents behind him can govern his time, knowthere's a time to work and a time to play. If the parent isn't behind thechild, there can be nothing outstanding, and it's not really a sacrifice. It'slove.

"If thechildren are never really outstanding, you can get the same satisfaction—youcan say that, I guess, but you don't really believe it. Swimming isn'teverything, winning is. Who plays to lose? I'm not out to lose. I never said tohim, 'You're second, that's great.' I told him I didn't care about winningage-groups, I care for world records."

Mark Spitzflourished at Arden Hills, but in 1961 the family moved to Walnut Creek,Calif., near Oakland, where he bounced ineffectually from one age-group programto another. Alarmed, Arnold Spitz consulted Chavoor, who recommended that Markbe taken to George Haines at Santa Clara. In February 1964, he began swimmingfor Haines.

"That was theturning point in my life," Mark says. "That was the point where Ireally went into swimming for a business, where I decided that I wanted to begood, to be somebody."

The switch toSanta Clara wasn't accomplished without sacrifices. Haines' swimmers worked outevery other morning at 6:30 a.m., which meant that Mark and his mother had toget up at 5 and drive the 40 miles from Walnut Creek to Santa Clara to make theworkouts. They did this from February to June, when Arnold Spitz quit hisemployer of 18 years, took a job with Schnitzer and moved his family to SantaClara, which meant that he had to make an 80-mile round trip.

"I didn't feelany pressure in the sense that I had to do good because my parents hadmoved," Mark says. "There was never any obligation. It was obvious Icame there to get better coaching."

A husky man whotakes himself very seriously, Haines is something of an enigma, even to thosewho have swum for him for years. He is singularly devoted to swimming, and hisability is respected around the world, yet Haines insists on remaining distant,even aloof, from the youngsters who occupy so much of his time and energy. Hehas strict rules about never accepting phone calls and visitors at his home.Although they worked together for five years, although their lives and purposeswere completely devoted to each other at the very top of a highly emotionalsport, Mark Spitz never set foot in George Haines' home. Perhaps, of course,Haines gives so much of himself at the pool that he needs utter solitude athome to relax and recharge. Even today every member of the Spitz family givesHaines the credit for making Mark the swimmer he is.

The results ofHaines' coaching were immediate. In 1964, at 14, Spitz qualified for thenational AAUs. The next year he made his first trip to the Maccabiah Games inIsrael. In 1966 he came within four-tenths of a second of breaking the worldrecord for the 1,500-yard freestyle, and the next June, at an obscure meet inCalifornia, he set a world record for the 400-meter freestyle (4:10.6).

That was the firstof several world or American records broken by Spitz in the very good year of1967. He set or tied five American records at the Santa Clara InternationalInvitational. In London he swam a world-record 56.3 in the 110-yard butterfly.The next week, in Berlin, he broke two more world records, in the 100-meterbutterfly (55.7) and the 200-meter butterfly (2:05.7). His most impressiveperformance of the year—and, perhaps, of his career—came in the 1967Pan-American Games in Winnipeg where he set two more world records and won fivegold medals. He was named World Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine.Letters and newspaper clippings piled up faster than Lenore Spitz could pastethem in her scrap-books. One fan was even moved to hail Mark in verse:

I saw him once, ayouth of seventeen,
Who challenged fame: I saw him dive and plunge
In eager competition, take the scene
From elders, and at once their names expunge
From grandeur; but the triumph that he gained
Was never cause for vanity and pride:
A friend as well as victor he remained,
A generous companion who defied
The call of arrogance. I saw him smile
In gracious triumph, happily receive
The trophies which had power to defile
A lesser spirit; when he takes his leave,
Let grateful recollection hold him near,
While in our minds the past lives ever clear.
Wade Wellman

Not everyone sawSpitz in these terms. "He talks all the time," said the mother of oneSanta Clara swimmer. "He's always doing stunts to attract attention. Ican't say he's a hot dog because he's so great in the pool. Maybe he's justconceited."

Retorts ArnoldSpitz: "Mark has a great sense of who and what he is. Mark is analytical,brutally so. Anybody who is outstanding has to possess this value. He's sobrutal with his honesty that some people can't accept it right away. And thereis some egotism, but every outstanding person must have some egotism. CassiusClay is obnoxious, but I love him."

Arnold Spitz couldunderstand petty jealousy among children, but there were more reprehensibledisplays. On occasion Mark was spat at, scratched, elbowed, kicked in thegroin. Accidents perhaps? Horsing around? Possibly, but there was no doubt inArnold Spitz' mind about the intent of the anti-Semitic gibes. "When I wasa youngster I used to fight, but that wasn't the way," he says. "So Itold Mark to shove it down their throats with times. Let them talk, but beatthe hell out of them in the pool. This is one thing that has made him sotough—and if he feels no obligation to the Santa Clara Swim Club, there is areason for it."

In retrospect,Arnold Spitz blames George Haines for "sticking his head in the sand"while Mark and his peers were growing more and more at odds, but Hainesmaintains that the situation was never as one-sided or as vicious as Spitz'father suggests.

"I probablyknew Mark as well as anyone and I probably still do," says Haines. "Iunderstand that he has matured a lot and I hope so, because that was hisbiggest fault. His trouble with his teammates came because he would saysomething before he thought. Immaturity. I think he was kidded a lot, andrazzed, but down deep every kid was glad he was on this team. Whatever problemshe had with his teammates was a 50-50 proposition. If a kid in high school isgreat, there is a lot of jealousy. I'll say this for Mark; whenever he said hecould do something, he could do it."

His problemsnotwithstanding, it was obvious early in 1968 that Spitz had displaced DonSchollander as the cynosure of American swimming and the country's best bet forseveral gold medals at the Olympics. The only question, in fact, seemed to bewhether Spitz would try to become the first swimmer to top Schollander's 1964feat of winning four golds in a single Olympics. Happily, or so it seemed atthe time, the U.S. Olympic swimming coach was none other than George Haines.Early in the year the master and his star pupil mapped their Olympic plans.After taking everything into consideration, including the spacing of the eventsand the high-altitude factor, Spitz and Haines concluded privately that Spitzcould win five—and possibly six—gold medals.

"I felt thatthe events were far enough apart that it wouldn't bother him," says Haines."Maybe we tried to do too much, but I don't think so. The only thing Iworried about was him being so young and whether the pressure would get to him.I think it probably did."

Everything wentmore or less on schedule through the Olympic Trials. Spitz acquitted himselfsplendidly, qualifying for three individual events (100-and 200-meter butterflyand 100-meter freestyle) and three relays. Although Spitz denies sayingpublicly that he hoped to win six gold medals, Haines was quoted as saying,"Personally, I think he can swim them all," and that was enough for thepress. Stories with such headlines as six MEDALS FOR SPITZ? and SPITZ PLANSBUSY OLYMPIC CAMPAIGN popped up regularly.

Then came Spitz'highly publicized downfall in Mexico City. A number of explanations wereoffered: he was still suffering from the serious cold that had sapped hisstrength and caused him to miss the first 13 practices at the U.S. team'spre-Olympic high-altitude camp in Colorado Springs. Haines had over-scheduledhim. Spitz was disturbed because some of his teammates formed a clique thatcold-shouldered him and even pulled for him to lose (there were rumors of anear-mutiny after Haines put Spitz on the 4 x 200 freestyle relay). Or, asHaines himself suggests, maybe Spitz choked.

"I'm notgiving any excuses for the Olympics," says Spitz. "When I'm 60 and lookback, I might not feel too bad with four medals. [He wound up with two golds inthe relays, a silver in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze in the 100-meterfreestyle.] I don't feel bad toward George. Why should I? I can just bedisappointed in myself. I didn't swim up to my potential. I had the worst meetof my life."

Says Haines:"I think the time he lost in Colorado was a factor—but he was fairly closeto normal in Mexico. As for his trouble with his teammates, some of the olderguys took his immaturity as conceit. He brought it on himself, but the olderboys should have known better. I don't think it was as bad as has beenindicated."

"George Haineshas his head in the sand again," says Arnold Spitz. "Superman wouldn'tcome out of the telephone booth."

The relationshipbetween Haines and the Spitz family came to an abrupt, acrimonious end lastsummer when Mark refused to swim for Santa Clara in the National AAUs inLouisville. Ostensibly, he balked because of fatigue—he had just returned froma virtuoso performance in the Maccabiah Games. In reality, however, Spitz hadreasons that were more subtle than tired blood. For one, he felt he hadoutgrown Haines and the Santa Clara Swim Club. ("When I went back, I wastreated like a baby," Spitz says. "I outgrew being treated the same wayas I had been when I was 14.") For another, his losses in the Olympics hadso embarrassed him—and so deeply frustrated his desire to win—that he resolvednever again to enter a major race without feeling reasonably certain that hewould be first, and this was his major difference, philosophically, withHaines.

"George wasmainly interested in getting points for the team," says Spitz. "So wasI. But I was interested in Mark Spitz also. I had to be. The whole idea is towin, not take second. At the Olympics I was tired and I swam too many things.To do the same thing again at the Nationals, knowing that something wouldhappen, was crazy."

Without Spitz,Santa Clara didn't win the national championship for the first time in sixyears. His sister, Nancy, 16, performed creditably for Santa Clara, but, as herfather says, "she isn't quite a female version of Mark." After theNationals the Spitz family received a letter from Haines—dated the day the meetbegan—informing them that not only Mark but also Nancy had been kicked off theSanta Clara team.

"I think anycoach would have done the same thing," says Haines. "In Mark's case itwas a matter of loyalty to his teammates. I'm interested in building a team,not a great personality. I felt if Mark had outgrown the program, what goodwould it do to coach Nancy?"

"He kickedNancy in the teeth," says Arnold Spitz. "She cried for three daysafterward. It was a very stupid ending to a very wholesome relationship. Onething I'm sure George lost sight of is that Mark is my son, not his. I told himthat the biggest thing in Mark's life was not him but me."

"If ArnoldSpitz had remained the father," replies Haines, "we might have workedit out."

Early this yearthe Spitz family sold its home and left Santa Clara—a move once more dictatedentirely by swimming. To get Nancy the best coaching, Arnold Spitz has movedhis wife and two daughters (Mark's older sister Heidi, 18, swims only for fun)to Sacramento so that Nancy could train under Sherm Chavoor. For himself,Arnold Spitz plans to rent a small apartment in Oakland and drive to Sacramentoon weekends.

"It's theleast I can do," he says. "Now I have only a couple of years left to dofor Nancy what I did for Mark."

Mark's appearanceat Indiana last January was awaited with mixed feelings. Says Fred Southwood,co-captain of this year's team: "We thought, 'Uh-oh, this ought to be good.If he can't get along with people he's known all his life, what's he going todo here?' We didn't know quite what to expect."

Before Spitz'arrival, Counsilman called the team together. He asked that Spitz be given thebenefit of the doubt, to judge him on his behavior at Indiana and not on hisreputation. The swimmers agreed, and apparently that was the only break Spitzneeded. He became close friends with his roommate, George Smith, a swimmer fromCanada, and he shared at least a peaceful coexistence with his other teammates.Away from the pool, Spitz joined a fraternity, began dating one of theprettiest coeds on campus and maybe even sneaked a beer or two while Counsilmanwisely turned his head. "He adjusted very well," says Southwood."We couldn't understand why he had so much trouble at Santa Clara."

The catalyst wasCounsilman. His special treatment of Spitz takes several forms, not all of themreadily understandable to an outsider. Every day before practice, for instance,they play a game. Spitz will test the water with his toes, then draw back,complaining that it is too cold. He will stall on the deck until Counsilmantakes off his belt and chases him around the pool, through the stands andfinally into the water.

Says Counsilman,"Mark, like any champion, likes attention, that extra little show ofaffection for ego."

Says Spitz,"Doc's psychology is fantastic. He makes you forget the chlorine in thepool and how tired you are. He makes you feel good."

To paraphraseanother famous Californian, the swimming world will have Mark Spitz to kickaround only a little longer. Win or lose, he says he will retire after the 1972Olympics.

"That will bea fantastic time to hang up my suit," he said recently. "I will havebeen swimming 14 years. All I want from swimming now is my pride and myrecords—not even anything new or different, just what I already have. I wouldlike to win one gold medal at the '72 Olympics and then leave. I would like togo out a winner."