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Original Issue

Still a big fish in a big (Olympic-size) pond

The top U.S. swimmers were in Houston last week for the national championships and, as has so often happened in the past, the topmost turned out to be Mark Spitz, who won four titles and set two world records

He is only 21 years old, yet it sometimes seems that Mark Spitz took over where Johnny Weissmuller left off. Last week he was at it again, winning four events and setting two world records at the national AAU championships in Houston, and longtime Spitz watchers said it was the most amazing performance of an amazing career. At the least, it reestablished Spitz as the cynosure of American swimming, earned him a spot on the U.S. team which left after the meet to tour East Germany and Russia and reinforced the opinion that he is our best bet for a bunch of gold medals at Munich.

When Spitz first showed up at Houston's Glenbrook Olympic Pool, it was obvious he was ready for a big meet. All summer he had been training uncommonly hard at the Arden Hills Swim Club in Sacramento. "I'm in the best condition of my life," he said. His attitude was even more improved. Gone were the last traces of the scowling, temperamental child; here was a smiling young man who was confident to the point of serenity.

"I don't get too nervous anymore," said Spitz, who won his first national title at age 16. "Now when I get up on the starting blocks I stay calm. I concentrate on a piece of weed in the water, or something like that."

All week the temperature in Houston was in the high 80s and low 90s, and the humidity was so oppressive that the swimmers were reluctant to leave the water, which was kept at 78° by 175 tons of special cooling equipment. On successive nights Spitz won the 100-meter butterfly, the 200 freestyle, the 200 butterfly and the 100 freestyle. In a qualifying heat he broke his own world record in the 100 butterfly with a time of 0:55.01. "I'm really happy," he said. "I've been after that record ever since I set it three years ago."

Even more impressive was his performance in the 200 butterfly. On the morning of the race he informed his parents, "I feel tired, I stayed up last night and I don't like this event, anyway." So he went out and qualified with a worldrecord 2:03.91. That night he broke the record again with a come-from-behind victory over Gary Hall, his Indiana University teammate. With less than 25 meters to go, Spitz seemed beaten, but he put his head down and caught Hall in the last split second. Hall's 2:03.91 tied the record Spitz had set in the morning, but Spitz did 2:03.89. "I still don't like it," he said.

Almost as impressive as Spitz' exploits was the showing made by the swimmers who represented the U.S. in the Pan-American Games earlier in the month. These were the "second-stringers," so called because many of our top swimmers—including Spitz, Hall, Debbie Meyer and John Kinsella—declined to compete in Cali, preferring to stay home, train for the AAU meet and shoot for the more desirable trip to Europe.

"We knew they were calling us the second string and that gave us incentive," said Backstroker Charlie Campbell. "We were really close at the Pan-Am Games, all stuck together 14 in a room, and we've stayed close here. We kind of grew up on the trip. And you notice that some of the guys who stayed here aren't going to Russia."

Campbell won the 200 backstroke at Houston while Mel Nash, another Pan-Am swimmer, took the 100 backstroke. (Asked if he could speak Russian, Nash said, "No, but my sister can, can I take her along?") Rick Colella of the Pan-Am team won the 200 breaststroke, and Tom McBreen, another Cali veteran, upset Kinsella, Mike Burton and Hans Fassnacht to win the 400 freestyle in 4:02.1—a world record.

McBreen, 18, is an erudite pre-med major at USC who calls almost every adult male "sir" and who enjoys reading (last week, Man's Search for Himself by Rollo May). He also is so nearsighted that he didn't believe his world record until Frank Heckl, another USC pre-med major who won six gold medals at Cali, handed him his glasses so he could see the scoreboard.

Not to be outdone, the Pan-Am girls picked up their share of medals. Ann Simmons, 18, upset Debbie Meyer and Nancy Spitz (Mark's sister, as she is always introduced) in the 400 freestyle. Deena Deardruff, 14, won the 100 butterfly and Cathy Calhoun, 13, swam the 1,500 in 17:19.2 to break Debbie's world record. "I got a little tight near the end," said the eighth-grader-to-be.

But some of the stay-at-homers did well, too. Hall won both individual medleys and was a close second to Spitz in the butterflys, and Ellie Daniel set a world record in the 200 butterfly. This summer, while living with Debbie Meyer's family in Sacramento, Ellie went on a diet consisting mainly of meat, cottage cheese and fruit. She became known as Eloise Cottage Cheese, but her weight dropped and she, like Spitz, came to Houston in top shape. She set her record (2:18.4) in a heat, then tied it in the final, both she and runner-up Karen Moe being below the old mark.

It also was noteworthy that several champions of long standing found themselves floundering in the wake of new, young up-and-comers. Kinsella didn't win a race, and Burton was shut out until the final night, when he took the 1,500. Brian Job lost both breaststrokes (he holds the world record in the 200) and announced he was going to take a "long, relaxing vacation." And Debbie Meyer was a dismal 14th overall in the 200 freestyle, in which she holds the world record.

After that race Debbie went back to her motel room and cried for 15 minutes. Then she had a long "girl talk" with her mother. "My pride was hurt," Debbie said. "People think that once you're up there on top, nothing can hurt you. But you have feelings, too, like any other human being. When I got back to the motel, I let it all out. I had kept it bottled up too long.

"For a long time now I've been in a kind of limbo, just kind of hanging in there. I finally realized that I haven't done enough, that I have to make a decision—to get in or get out. I've decided to stay in and now I'm really going to buckle down. Like I had a lot of social life this summer, but now I'm going to cut down on that. It's going to be all seriousness. And if I can make the Olympic team and swim in just one race, I'll be happy."

Spitz' happy summer began when he arrived home in Carmichael, Calif., accompanied by Andy-Up, an Old English sheepdog puppy. Andy-Up weighed six pounds then but now is up to 55 and still growing, which seems to puzzle Stanley, the family dachshund. "Sometimes I get the feeling that Stanley thinks he's shrinking," says Arnold Spitz, Mark's father.

Mark also traded his TR6 for a new Mustang and broke a wedding engagement. An aspiring dentist, he spent much of his free time in the office of a dentist whose son swims with the Spitzes at Arden Hills. Among Mark's other interests is stereo, and he managed to talk the Arden Hills coach, Sherm Chavoor, into buying $1,800 worth of new equipment.

"I had just bought a new set and I was real proud of it," says Chavoor. "But I made the mistake of showing it to Mark and he said right off, 'That's a pile of junk.' Before I knew it he had talked me into dumping that set and buying a whole new outfit. He can be very persuasive."

So can Chavoor, which helps make him one of the finest U.S. coaches. Having been impressed with the way he was bringing along Nancy, Mark began to work out with Chavoor, swimming more hours (about 4½ per day) and yardage (around 8,500 daily) than ever before. For his part, Chavoor handled Mark with kid gloves. He often consulted by phone with Doc Counsilman, Mark's coach at Indiana, and when Mark decided he wanted to skip a workout Chavoor let him.

"He's not a kid anymore, he's a grown man," says Chavoor, "so you have to treat him accordingly. You can't threaten or yell at a Mark Spitz, a Debbie Meyer or a Mike Burton. They've been around too long."

Not everything went smoothly for the Spitz family in Houston. Chavoor had expected Nancy to be a strong contender in the freestyles, but her best was a sixth. Some amateur psychologists said she was intimidated by Mark's success, others said she was trying too hard to please her perfectionist father (SI, March 9,1970). Arnold Spitz, more conspicuous than ever with his Fu Manchu mustache, seemed puzzled. "Is it my fault?" he kept asking. "If it is, tell me so and I'll stay away from her."

The Spitzes were also involved in a couple of minor controversies. Arnold was so convinced that one of Mark's opponents had jumped the gun in the 200 freestyle that he dashed out of the stands and onto the pool deck. "He ought to be arrested," growled one official. The next day the "false start" was all but forgotten in a hassle over a bathing suit. The Speedo people, who have a virtual monopoly in racing suits, apparently were irritated because Mark insisted on wearing a bright orange suit instead of the Arden Hills team suit. That the orange one happened to be made by another company might also have had something to do with their concern.

But even this crisis was overcome. Indeed, it was more typical of Mark Spitz' triumphant week that he was warmly received wherever he went. In his days as swimming's enfant terrible he often was booed, sometimes by his own teammates. But last week there were cheers every time he climbed up on a starting block or mounted the victory stand to receive another medal. He was constantly besieged by youngsters, especially longhaired girls, who wanted his autograph or simply the chance to see him close up. And his appeal was not restricted to teen-agers. Early in the meet, an elderly lady gave Spitz a dime and a green lollipop for luck.

On another occasion Spitz and his family were eating at a Howard Johnson's near the pool when a waiter, wearing the name tag "Mort-3," approached, bearing two strawberry milkshakes, which Mark had ordered.

"They tell me you set a world record," said Mort-3. "Is that why you need two milkshakes? I am an exchange student from Israel, you know, and I saw you once in the Maccabiah Games."

"A Jewish waiter in Texas!" said Arnold. "No wonder we got waited on quicker than anyone else."

Just no end of amazing things happen when Mark Spitz is around.