On September 4, 1972, American-Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz broke a world record, winning seven gold medals at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, becoming one of the greatest Olympic stars of his time.
His legendary victory was marred just hours later, when the Palestinian terror group Black September took members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, eventually murdering 11 of them. Following a night on the town celebrating with his friends, a blissfully unaware Spitz strolled to a press conference, only to be pulled down to Earth with a devastating thud. "By the time we got there, (some friends) met up with me and said, 'Have you heard what's happened?' "Spitz recalled in an interview with the Tribune News Service."I said, 'The last I heard, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals.' They said, 'No, there's a lock-down at the village. We don't know what's going on.' "
Following the massacre, Spitz was whisked away from the Games before the closing ceremonies, amid fears that he could become a terror target as a prominent Jewish competitor.
The California-born swimmer began his sporting career at the 1965 Maccabiah Games in Israel, his first international competition. Aged 15, Spitz won four gold medals and was named most outstanding athlete. He then took part in a series of competitions, gaining an international reputation and the nickname "Mark the Shark.” In 1967 he won five gold medals at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, setting a record that was not broken for 40 years. In 1968, he headed to his first Olympic Games event in Mexico, where he won two Gold medals, one Silver and one Bronze. However Spitz's competitive spirit was not satiated, and he looked to the next Olympics with determination to exceed himself.
His 1972 septet victory was nearly averted. In the words of Spitz's mentor Sherm Chavor, Spitz was close to "chickening out" of putting himself up for a potential fall on his way to earning those seven life-changing medals. "I know I say I don't want to swim before every event but this time I'm serious. If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure," the nervous swimmer told ABC reporter Donna De Varona before the 100-meter freestyle race.
But luckily for the soon-to-be Olympic champion, Chavor persistently coaxed him, saying "You'd be chicken if you don't swim that event,' " Spitz told The Los Angeles Times
. "The 100 free is the premier fast event. If somebody wins the 100 free, they'll be known as the fastest swimmer in the world. It wouldn't have mattered if you won 17 gold medals. He said, 'The guy that wins that is the fastest swimmer, undisputed, plus the fact you're the world record holder, so what are you doing?' "
And sure enough, Spitz mustered up the courage to take the plunge, and proceeded to beat US rival Jerry Heidenreich by a half-stroke – his smallest margin of victory of his seven wins that year.
Soon enough, Spitz's winning looks ensured that he became not only an athletic star but also a pin-up icon; teenage girls across the States plastered their walls with posters of the strapping Speedo-clad swimmer with his seven medals gleaming around his neck. His famous mustache also distinguished him from other swimmers. Spitz humorously related to an audience that he had told a Russian coach a day before the start of the 1972 swimming competitions, that it "allowed water to deflect away from his mouth, helped him get more streamline and get his behind up out of the water so he can swim faster." A year later, according to Spitz, every Russian male swimmer sported a mustache.
Following his victory, at the sprite age of 22, Spitz decided to end on a high and bowed out of the Games. In 1992, 41-year-old Spitz attempted a come-back, but failed to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics falling short by two seconds of the required speed at the trials. Spitz by this time had established a successful career in real estate, and is now a self-described motivational speaker and entrepreneur. Spitz held on to his title as the greatest swimmer in the world for 36 years, until finally, Michael Phelps set a new record winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Games in 2008.
Phelps catapulted Spitz back into the Olympic spotlight, as the first true threat to Spitz's crown.
Both in the lead-up to and after Phelps's victory, Spitz found himself a subject of media attention, as the man who set the bar that Phelps needed to raise.
"I made a joke by saying that his middle name is Mark Spitz and if I were him, I would hate me," Spitz was quoted as saying by Israel21C in 2007 in reference to the constant pairing of the two. "If what he's trying to do is based on beating my record, then I'm honored."
Following his de-crowning, Spitz assured reporters that he was pleased. "I was happy for him," Spitz said. "I didn't have a horse in that race; it's not like I lost a race to him or anything. He had a vision of doing something that had been done well before he was even born.
"What greater thing could I leave to the sport than to inspire somebody to have the desire to do what I did and take it a step further? I embraced the idea that it happened. Why would I be unhappy about it? If what I did was a steppingstone in his success, that's a positive. I had that record for 36 years. That's an awfully long time."
And so Michael Phelps became the new Mark Spitz, creating new and tougher challenges in an era in which sport has become an exact science. Like his predecessor, Phelps retired young, announcing he was stepping away from the pool following this year's London Olympics with 22 Olympic medals under his belt. And he too will watch with bated breath, as the new generation of swimmers battle for his crown.