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Mark Spitz just can't get away from Michael Phelps. They're regularly coupled in cyberspace, and by next year they could be forever linked as the greatest swimmers in history.
Spitz tracks his own media mentions on Google, and every time his name pops up these days, it's in connection with Phelps.
"I made a joke by saying that his middle name is Mark Spitz and if I were him, I would hate me," Spitz said Monday, speaking in a rare interview for the normally reclusive champion.
Phelps is planning on making another run at Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics next year in Beijing. The 21-year-old American came up just short at the 2004 Athens Games, winning six golds and eight medals overall.
"If what he's trying to do is based on beating my record, then I'm honored," Spitz said while visiting Casa Roma, a hospitality pavilion set up to promote the 2009 world championships in Rome.
Phelps is set to swim five individual events and possibly all three relays in Melbourne. He's off to a winning start, swimming the opening leg on the victorious 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday.
"Each time he tries to attempt to swim in this many events, the pressure becomes less for him because his experience goes up and he knows how to control that pressure," Spitz said.
Spitz marvels at how swimming has changed since he dominated the 1972 Olympics. Back then, the world championships didn't exist and no one paid him much attention the year before Munich.
"I'd be sitting in the stands and go, 'Oh, it's my event in five minutes. Excuse me,' and I'd come down right on the pool deck and nobody could stop me," he said.
In those days, swimmers gathered in a ready room to await their race, usually with a coach. Spitz wasn't above psyching out his opponents.
He'd groan and slump over, complaining that his arms hurt and his body felt terrible. His rivals' heads would swing toward Spitz in amazement, believing his act.
"Of course, I was just pretending," he said.
Nowadays, swimmers are alone in the ready room with only their thoughts. In Phelps's case, his favorite hip-hop music - he favors Akon or some ol' school Biggie - is pumping through ear plugs. He doesn't yank them out until the last minute.
Phelps and his rivals parade on deck before a race and line up behind the starting blocks awaiting formal introductions.
"It's a really big entertainment," Spitz said. "I don't know if I'd have been able to do as well. It seems like there's too many requirements." Phelps is surrounded by a cadre of supporters, including his coach, agent and family. At major meets, he and the US team benefit from having trainers, massage therapists, a sports psychologist and a large coaching staff on hand.
"It's pretty amazing," Spitz said. "They have much more responsibility placed on their shoulders, and they have more pressure. He handles the pressure very well. He understands the implication of swimming all those events."
Spitz was 22 when he turned the sporting world upside down in Munich. Phelps will be 23 in Beijing.
Spitz was a true amateur - the rules didn't allow him to accept money for his performances.
Phelps is strictly a professional. One of his sponsors, Speedo, has dangled a $1 million bonus if he matches Spitz's feat.
"When my wife heard about that, she said, 'What are they going to give you if he does it? Are you going to get a million if he does it?'" Spitz said. "It was a joke, obviously."
He bought a Ferrari after his Olympic sweep and says he made more than $1 million when he retired after Munich. Phelps is playing it a little more low key, only buying a BMW.
"A million dollars in 1972 would be equivalent to more than $10m. today," Spitz said. "I did very well, thank you very much."
Spitz hopes Phelps enjoys his pursuit of perfection, no matter the outcome.
"The world, whether you even care about swimming, is going to watch to see if he can do what he wants to do," he said. "It will become the single most important thing in Olympic sport in this decade so far."
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