U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz wins his seventh gold medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Spitz swam the fly leg of the 400-meter medley relay, and his team set a new world-record time of 3 minutes, 48.16 seconds. Remarkably, Spitz also established new world records in the six other events in which he won the gold. At the time, no other athlete had won so many gold medals at a single Olympiad. The record would stand until Michael Phelps took home eight gold medals at the Beijing Games in 2008.
Mark Spitz was born in Modesto, California, in 1950. He began receiving instruction in competitive swimming at age six, and by age 10 he held 17 national age-group records and one world age-group record. When he was 14, his family moved to Santa Clara so Spitz could train with George Haines of the celebrated Santa Clara Swim Club. At age 16, he won his first of 24 Amateur Athletic Union championships and at 17 took home five gold medals at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.
Having set 10 world records by the time of the 1968 Summer Olympics, the 18-year-old Spitz brazenly predicted that he would take home six gold medals from the Mexico City Olympic Games. Actually, he won just two gold medals, both in team relay events, and took home a silver in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. Humbled, he went to Indiana University in Bloomington to train under Doc Counsilman and prepare for the next Olympics. At Indiana, he won eight individual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles and was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969 and 1971. By the time he graduated in 1972, he was ready for the XX Olympiad in Munich, West Germany.
Spitz was expected to dominate at Munich, but the 22-year-old star had learned his lesson in Mexico City and made no predictions. His actions spoke loudly enough. On August 28, his spectacular victory march began with an easy victory in the 200-meter butterfly. The butterfly was his signature stroke, and he set a new world record of 2 min. 0.70 sec. That same night, he won his second gold as a member of the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay. He swam the anchor leg, and his team finished in a world record 3 min. 36.42 sec. The next day, he won his third gold medal, with a world record time of 1 min. 52.78 sec. in the 200-meter freestyle.
He swam the 100-meter butterfly in 54.27 sec. to earn a world record and his fourth gold medal, and then anchored the 800-meter freestyle relay team to victory for another gold medal and world record. He considered pulling out of the 100-meter freestyle out of fears he would be bested by teammate Jerry Heidenreich but then went ahead with the race, finishing a half-stroke ahead of Heidenreich in a world record 51:22 sec. He had won his sixth gold medal, surpassing the medal record held by Italian fencer Nedo Nadi, who had won five gold medals at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
The capstone of his gold medal sweep came on September 4, when his 400-meter medley relay team won the gold. After the victory, Spitz’s teammates lifted him on their shoulders and carried him around the pool in a victory lap.
Before Spitz’s great achievement could fully sink in, however, tragedy stuck at dawn on September 5 when Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli quarters in the Olympic village, killing an Israeli coach and wrestler and taking nine other Israeli team members hostage. Spitz, who is Jewish, was put under armed guard and then flown from Munich to London out of fear he might become a target. The nine Israeli hostages were eventually killed.
Spitz received a hero’s welcome in the United States and with his good looks was hailed as a sex symbol. He made a fortune from endorsements contracts, but a hoped-for movie career failed to pan out. He lost his amateur status and rarely swam in competition after 1972. In 1992, at age 42, he launched a comeback bid but failed to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977 and was a member of the first class of inductees into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.