By Susan Reed Lorenzo Benet
January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

After all these years, Mark Spitz wants to test the waters again. He walks to the edge of the pool at the UCLA Swim Center and dips a spindly big toe in his element. He crouches down, toes curling tightly over the pool’s concrete edge, then springs into a clean, graceful dive. He surfaces 10 yards down water, and his long arms and bucket-like hands begin propelling him down the lane in the freestyle. But half an hour into this churning workout, Spitz suddenly pulls up, his face contorted by pain from a month-old pulled back muscle. His coach, Ron Ballatore of UCLA, kneels down to reassure the greatest swimming champion in Olympic history. “Everybody has back problems, Mark,” he says, “when they get old.”

It’s hard to believe that Mark Spitz, the darling of the 72 Munich Olympics with an astounding seven gold medals, is 39 years old. Even harder to fathom: After 18 years he’s placing his life on hold again to attempt a comeback, hoping to make the U.S. team for the 1992 Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly. To Spitz, now happily married to former model Suzy Weiner, the father of Matthew, 8, and a wealthy builder of custom houses, it is all logical. “If I had it in me then, I should have it in me now,” he argues. “A lot of guys in their 40s and 50s are swimming faster than they did in their heyday. If I can do my world-record time again, or faster, that equates to being competitive. At 22, I wasn’t at my peak—I had five to eight years left—and I always wondered whether I could have swum faster. It’s the challenge, an ego thing. God gave me a body that adapts to aquatic sports—why not make one final effort?”

Indeed, although there is gray in his hair, Spitz’s 6’1″ frame is still better suited to slicing through the water than 99 percent of his younger competitors’. His long arms and big palms give him rare power, and at 182 lbs. he weighs only 7 lbs. more than he did in 1972, most of that upper-body muscle from lifting weights. In 1984 Spitz actually beat Rowdy Gaines, who was about to win the Olympic 100-meter freestyle, in three of five practice freestyle sprints—and tied him in the other two. “He had it in ’84,” Gaines says admiringly. Spitz’s hyperextended knees also give him special depth and power in the butterfly, always his best event. “Mark still has one of the greatest butterfly strokes of all time,” says Ballatore.

Most important, the butterfly is unique in modern swimming. “The ‘fly hasn’t moved along at the same rate as other events,” Spitz explains. “My 18-year-old time of 54.27 [the current world record, 52.84, was set by Pablo Morales of the U.S. in 1986] would have placed me second at the 1989 U.S. championships. If that had been the Olympic trials, I’d be going to Barcelona. And there are experts who say I could have done a second faster at Munich if I hadn’t swum seven events.” Says USC’s Pete Daland, the U.S. team coach at Munich: “It’ll be very difficult to improve on his best time of nearly two decades ago. He hasn’t trained in 18 years. It’s a long shot. But it’s great for Mark and for swimming.”

The eldest of three children, Spitz was programmed for aquatic success from age 8, when his father, Arnold, a construction consultant, and mother Lenore entered him in a swimming program at the YMCA near their Sacramento home. Mark began breaking records as soon as he hit the water, and Arnold and Lenore became so driven by his success that they moved three times in the next six years in search of ever-better coaching. “It became all consuming,” admits Lenore. “People thought we were nuts, we were so devoted to his swimming.” They also thought the obsession was a mite disturbing. Mark’s workouts started before dawn. Afternoon workouts lasted from 2:30 to 5. Swimming was discussed at almost every meal. There were no days off.

By 14, Mark had had enough. “I’m gonna quit,” he announced at the breakfast table one morning. Arnold stared at his son, dumbfounded. Lenore, at the sink, dropped the dishes. “No you’re not,” she said, amidst the broken crockery. “I’ve given up too much and worked too hard. You’re not quitting.”

At Mexico City in 1968, Spitz won two golds, one silver and one bronze. Four years later, Arnold and Lenore, overnight celebrities, sat in the stands with Kirk Douglas when their son took his seventh gold. “I feel so sorry for you,” Douglas told Lenore, even before the cheering stopped. “You have no idea what will happen to that kid when he goes home.”

The kid came home in glory: Awaiting him were 5,000 pieces of fan mail and a contract from the William Morris Agency. Mark promoted razors, swimwear, milk, pool accessories, hair dryers. But Spitz never became an endorsement champ. “Mark was quiet,” says Lenore. “The media and the public expected superathletes to be clever and brilliant. Today all these athletes have agents, psychologists, PR people, but no one ever gave Mark lessons in how to talk to the media. All he had was his coach.”

Spitz’s life took a turn for the better when he met 20-year-old Suzy Weiner, whose photo was given to him by a friend of Arnold’s. Mark telephoned her to suggest dinner. “I didn’t have a car, so I asked if she could swing by and pick me up,” he recalls, laughing at his presumption. “She said, ‘Dinner sounds great. Why don’t you take a cab over, and we’ll discuss it.’ ” They wed in 1973. Suzy quit UCLA to travel with Mark, who had given up thoughts of being a dentist in favor of making personal appearances, and in 1976 they bought a four-bedroom house in L.A. The first thing Mark did was to design and build a lap pool.

Married life changed Spitz, by his own testimony. “Suzy doesn’t let me get away with anything,” he says. “She stands on her own and she’s made me a nicer guy. She’s the driving force in my life.” Fatherhood has also softened him. “You can’t be as selfish,” he says. “That won’t do your children any good—my parents weren’t selfish when it came to me. I have less anxiety. I have responsibilities to my wife and my son, but those are enjoyable responsibilities.”

“We’ve calmed down considerably,” says Suzy. “We’re not Hollywood types. We’re family oriented. My parents live close by, Mark’s sister is near. Family and Matty—those are our priorities now.”

Since he took in partners for his surf-wear business and 10-year-old house building company, Spitz has ample time to spend on those priorities as well as his hobbies—skiing and art collecting. But lingering in the back of his mind has always been that question: How fast might he have been? His gold medals are stashed in a safe deposit box, but other medals and trophies dot the Spitz walls, and in the living room a Plexiglas case displays the crumpled stars-and-stripes swimsuit he wore at Munich. “Mark has been thinking about swimming again for a long time,” says Suzy. “People have been nudging him for years, saying, ‘Get back in the water.’ I have always told him, ‘It’s you who has to get in the pool every day.’ I said I was behind him all the way, whatever his decision.”

Spitz concedes that it has been tough to work out with kids half his age. After his first day of practice in late September, some of the youths asked him how he felt. “I feel like——,” the champion confessed. “Wow,” one of the kids said. “He feels like we do.” That night, Spitz phoned Arnold and Lenore. “My God, those kids are so young and big,” he said. “But I kept up with them.” He is training by swimming and weight lifting, and he intends to test himself competitively next summer.

For the first time in his swimming lifetime, there is no pressure. “What I did at Munich stands on its own,” Spitz says, philosophically. “If I get to the line and I’m not successful, will I be disenchanted and dissatisfied with myself? How can I? I have an opportunity to get in the best shape of my life. I have another chance to perform as far as my body will take me.”

—Susan Reed, Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles