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All Points West: Comparing great aquamen of Olympics past, present
July 07, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
As is consistenly theorized with great sports athletes and teams, sports writers with imaginations as vast as the world of sports itself, wonder how Bill Russell’s Celtics might have done against Magic Johnson’s Lakers, or how Muhammad Ali might have handled a Mike Tyson in his prime, or how Joe Montana’s 49ers would have fared against Peyton Manning’s Broncos. Or, even more relevant, how the Nebraska Cornhuskers national championship teams of the 90s might have played against latest dynasty, the Alabama Crimson Tide?

Side note: I’m betting on Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley’s second year to bring alive the biggest sleeper in college football history in a season less than two months away.

As for the biggest show on earth? In watching the Olympic Trials swimming finals in Omaha on TV last week, Michael Phelps was stellar. He came out of retirement last year at age 30, to qualify for his fifth Olympics. He edged biggest rival Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM. The swimmers’ times were 1:55.91 and 1:56.22 times, respectively. In an NBC interview, he said Lochte, whom he had been swimming against for 13 years, has brought out the best in him. But how does Phelps compare with the great Mark Spitz?

Phelps began his Olympic tale in Sydney in 2000 at the tender age of 15, when he finished fifth for the 2004 games, he won medals in eight events, one less gold that year than the legendary Spitz.

He told reporters, “Everyone was comparing me to Mark Spitz. But for me – I still say this a lot – it was never about beating Mark Spitz. It never was. It was about becoming the first Michael Phelps, not the second Mark Spitz. And that’s truly what I always dreamt of as a kid. I dreamt of doing something that no one had ever done before.” After the London games, he has accumulated 22 medals (18 of the gold), and he is the most decorated Olympian of all time.

If Spitz had to face a Phelps in competition, like Lochte for Phelps, would it have brought Spitz to greater heights? Well, it might do us well to remember Spitz’ career.

On his Facebook page, Spitz is described as an American former competition swimmer, nine-time Olympic champion, and former world record-holder in seven events. He won seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, an achievement surpassed only by Michael Phelps, who won eight golds at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Spitz set world records in all seven events in which he competed in 1972, an achievement that still stands. Since the year 1900, no other swimmer has gained so great a percentage of all the medals awarded for Olympic events held in a single Games. Between 1968 and 1972, Spitz won nine Olympic golds plus a silver and a bronze, five Pan American golds, 31 Amateur Athletic Union titles, and eight National Collegiate Athletic Association titles. During those years, he set 35 world records, but two were in trials and unofficial.

With his seven-gold medal performance at Munich in 1972, he was the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympic Games until Phelps’ eight gold medal performance at Beijing 36 years later in 2008. He was named World Swimmer of the Year in 1969, 1971 and 1972 by Swimming World Magazine. He was the third athlete to win nine Olympic gold medals.

Phelps would definitely hold the edge in endurance. According to Spitz’ biography, he learned how to swim from his father Arnold at the age of 2, in 1952, when his family lived in Hawaii. Spitz, like Phelps, faced disappointment in his first games. He entered the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City brimming with confidence, even going so far as to predict he’d win six gold medals. He did win two golds, but both came in team events; he collected a silver in the 100-meter butterfly and bronze in the 100-meter freestyle.

Following the games in Mexico City, Spitz enrolled at Indiana University. He earned a pre-dental degree and brought a renewed focus to his swimming, racking up more first-place finishes and additional world records.

Spitz was better prepared for the competition at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany, and this time he lived up to his high standards.

Spitz retired after the 1972 games, with a failed effort to parlay his fame into Hollywood greatness. He turned 65 years old on February 10, 2016, eligible for true retirement in other fields. Careerwise, he was able to sustain a successful real estate company in Beverly Hills, and became a popular motivational speaker.

Spitz, like Phelps, came out of athletic retirement in 1990, at the ripe age of 40, when he failed to qualify for the Olympic team. If he had been nine years younger, who knows?

Yet, what matters is that Spitz made his mark. His face was on a Wheaties cereal box. He made America feel great about being American. In 20 years, Phelps might be bested, when some kid, who’s not yet even a glint in his father’s eye, might become legend in winning nine Olympic gold medals. But that’s another sports chapter.

Still, wouldn’t it have been great to see Spitz battle Phelps in at least one race?
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