It's an Olympic feat that has not been equaled in 32 years--Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in swimming earned at the 1972 Games in Munich. This month his countryman Michael Phelps will launch an assault on that record, and Spitz, 54, now a Los Angeles stockbroker and entrepreneur, is cheering Phelps on. TIME's Alice Park sat down with the man who set the standard.
ANY REGRETS ABOUT LETTING THE RECORD GO IF MICHAEL PHELPS EQUALS OR SURPASSES IT IN ATHENS? If he wins seven golds and ties what I did, then it would be like I was the first man on the moon and he became the second. If he wins more than seven, then he becomes the first man on Mars. We'd both be unique. It's a great opportunity for Michael, for swimming, for the Olympics. I'm excited about going and watching.
WHO HAD IT HARDER--YOU OR PHELPS? All things being equal, if we could simulate the same scenario, he has a lot more difficult task. He's elected to swim six individual events, as opposed to what I elected to do, which was four.
YOU MET PHELPS FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE OLYMPIC TRIALS A FEW WEEKS AGO. WHAT ADVICE DID YOU GIVE HIM? I told him that I thought he could do it and not to let anyone tell him any different.
SO, YOU'RE GOING TO BE IN ATHENS. ARE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT TERRORISTS DISRUPTING THE GAMES? No, and it's funny that people consider I have some special insight because of what happened in Munich. Nobody foresaw what was going to happen in Munich, and if anybody thinks they can foresee what will happen in Athens, they better call the White House now, because I think they'll find themselves a very important job.
YOU RACED WITH A FULL MUSTACHE, NO CAP AND NO GOGGLES. TODAY'S SWIMMERS WON'T GET ANYWHERE NEAR A COMPETITION WITHOUT SHAVING FIRST. DIDN'T ALL THE HAIR SLOW YOU DOWN? Goggles were not allowed. A cap was allowed, but I chose not to wear one. I grew the mustache because a coach in college said I couldn't grow one.
DID YOU GET ANNOYED WITH ALL THE QUESTIONS PEOPLE ASKED ABOUT IT? When I went to the Olympics, I had every intention of shaving the mustache off, but I realized I was getting so many comments about it--and everybody was talking about it--that I decided to keep it. I had some fun with a Russian coach who asked me if my mustache slowed me down. I said, No, as a matter of fact, it deflects water away from my mouth, allows my rear end to rise and make me bullet shaped in the water, and that's what had allowed me to swim so great. He's translating as fast as he can for the other coaches, and the following year every Russian male swimmer had a mustache.
AS YOU WERE COLLECTING THE GOLDS IN MUNICH, DID YOU REALIZE YOU WERE MAKING OLYMPIC HISTORY? I never thought of what I was doing as historic. It was just a reaffirmation of what I had practiced doing for three straight years, swimming the same events in the same order, over and over, so repetitiously that it was almost nauseating.
BEFORE THE 1972 OLYMPICS, YOU APPLIED TO DENTAL SCHOOL. DID YOU EVER THINK OF GOING BACK TO CLEAN TEETH? I always wanted to be a dentist from the time I was in high school, and I was accepted to dental school in the spring of 1972. I was planning to go, but after the Olympics there were other opportunities. I did some television and speaking engagements, and things just went from there.