Mark Spitz Still Testing the Waters

Partway through his comeback bid, ex-Olympian still aims to get to Barcelona - somehow

YOU can't go home again, they say, but Mark Spitz hopes to prove them wrong - in more ways than one. The man who won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics already went "home" in one sense. He returned to the scene of his triumphs recently with moviemaker Bud Greenspan to film "Mark Spitz Returns to Munich," a TV special slated to air at the beginning of the 1992 Olympic year.

But that was the easy part. Spitz, now 41, is also trying to return "home" in another sense - via his much-publicized comeback bid. On the surface, the results haven't been too encouraging. But he hasn't given up yet on his dream of making the United States swim team again - 20 years later.

"Obviously it's proving to be a little more difficult than I anticipated," Spitz said after losing to current superstars Tom Jager and Matt Biondi in a pair of challenge races. But he quickly added that there's still plenty of time to work and improve before the Olympic trials next spring.

Ever since Spitz announced his attempt about a year and a half ago, it has been the object of intense media interest, building to a head for the two 50-meter butterfly races here in April.

In the first one, Jager, the world record holder in the 50-meter freestyle and considered the fastest human in water, got a big jump at the start and was never threatened.

Two weeks later against Biondi, who won five gold medals at the 1988 Olympics, Spitz started much better and held his own for the first half of the race before falling back.

'Extremely pleased'

sked to evaluate his performances, Spitz said in a Monitor interview that he was "extremely pleased" with the second race. He conceded that he had been more nervous than he thought he would be against Jager, and was pretty much out of the race from the start. "But I got off the blocks very competitively against Matt," he says. In fact, when he found himself still in contention at the halfway point, he got so excited he scrambled his stroke.

Obviously, losing to swimmers like Jager and Biondi at this stage of his comeback was pretty much expected (probably even by Spitz himself), but his times were a bit of a disappointment, too - especially since he had done better in practice.

The apparent lesson is that after a long layoff, one not only has to rebuild physical skills, but also re-learn the mental aspects of racing.

Whatever happens in his current bid, Spitz's place as one of the all-time great swimmers is secure. By the age 10 he already held 17 national age-group records, and at 17 he won five gold medals at the 1967 Pan Am Games.

A year later at the Mexico City Olympics he captured a silver, a bronze, and two relay golds - results that would have been most impressive for almost anyone else, but that were actually a disappointment to Mark: He had predicted more.

Four years later came Olympic redemption in Munich. Spitz took golds in the 100 and 200 freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly, and three relay events.

Spitz, who retired from competitive swimming after Munich, has stayed mostly out of the limelight in the last 20 years, devoting his time to his family and his real estate development business. So why did he decide to go through the rigors of getting back into competition?

"I saw that a lot of people were doing well in masters competitions, and I said, 'If they can do well, I can too, he explains. "One of my times [the 100-meter butterfly] had stood up pretty well since Munich, so I decided to concentrate on that - and I've been training my brains out to be as competitive as I can."

Preparing a fall-back plan

After the two 50-meter races here, Spitz swam the first full 100 in his comeback in a race in the Canary Islands. Again, the result was not promising: He finished last in a five-man field. On the positive side, his unofficial 50-meter time was more competitive, and he was still abreast of the other four at 80 meters before simply running out of steam.

In any event, he is going on with a full schedule of races. His next contest is a race in France later this month, and another one here after that.

Does he still think he has a shot at going to Barcelona in 1992?

"I know I've been improving - and I still have 10 months or so before the trials," he says, "and in a worst-case scenario, I can always buy a ticket and go that way!"

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