After An Olympic Champ Joked His Mustache Made Him Faster, One Swim Team Took Him Far Too Seriously

Back in 1972 Mark Spitz showed up to the Munich Olympics sporting a new and somewhat audacious look. Yes, the competitive swimmer now had a distinctive mustache, and that was despite the chance that the facial fuzz would slow him down in the pool. But the whiskers seemingly proved unproblematic, as by the end of the games Spitz had set multiple world records. And as a result, mustaches became something of a trend among his rivals.

The eldest of three, Spitz was born to parents Arnold and Lenore Sylvia in Modesto, California, in 1950. However, the family then moved to the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu when Spitz was two. And here, the young boy developed an affinity with the water that would one day prove significant.

During his time living in Honolulu, the young Spitz would reportedly swim in the waters of Waikiki beach day after day. In fact, this is a memory that his mother recalled to Time magazine back in 1968. “You should have seen that little boy dash into the ocean,” she said.

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But the family’s time in Honolulu was fairly brief, and when Spitz was six years old they decided to up sticks once more and return to California. This time they moved to Sacramento – and it was here that Spitz got his first taste of competitive swimming.

At the age of nine, Spitz fell under the tutelage of Sherm Chavoor. Nowadays Chavoor is notable for coaching not only Spitz, but also Olympic medalists Sue Pedersen, Debbie Meyer and Mike Burton. And tellingly, Chavoor’s coaching efforts were recognized in 1977 when he was added to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

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Meanwhile, by the time Spitz was ten, the young swim star had started to clock up an impressive number of nationwide records. And the accolades kept coming after he relocated once again – this time to Santa Clara. Here, Spitz was trained by yet another legendary swimming coach: George F. Haines.

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And thanks in part to the expert guidance of his coaches, Spitz started to make a splash in the world of swimming. That’s right, throughout the course of his adolescence, Spitz honed his craft and succeeded in a number of competitions. But it was in 1967 when the young swimming sensation announced himself as an athlete to watch on a more global scale. You see, this was the year that he first broke the world record in the 400-meter freestyle – but the accolade certainly wasn’t to be his last.

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Indeed, by the summer of 1968 Spitz had racked up a total of ten world records. And with his confidence running high, he anticipated that he would obtain some six gold medals at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Mexico City. However, when it came to the crunch time of competition, it seems that the young athlete failed to perform as expected.

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Yes, Spitz took home only two medals – and although they were golds, both were for team events. It must have been a painful learning curve for an athlete who, on paper, had the talent to back up his designs of a much bigger golden haul. For example, going into the games, Spitz was the world record holder in the 100-meter butterfly. Yet during the actual Olympic race, he was defeated by his U.S. colleague Doug Russell.

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Consequently, Spitz left Mexico City in 1968 unhappy with his swimming throughout the competition. And so the following January he signed up to Indiana University and began training under another influential coach: Doc Counsilman. This proved to be a pivotal move for Spitz, too, and he later reportedly described it as “the biggest decision of my life [and] the best.”

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You see, the move to Indiana helped Spitz raise his performance to another level. During his time at the university, the swim star surpassed more records and acquired several more titles and accolades. What’s more, he was even deemed to be the number one amateur athlete in the whole of the United States in 1971. And it was around this time that he picked up the nickname “Mark the Shark.”

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But despite the formidable reputation that he had cultivated, Spitz was still determined to excel at the Olympics. And his chance to achieve glory on this global stage came again in the summer of 1972. This time around, the games were to be held in Munich – then in West Germany.

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The occasion was to be the second Olympics held in Germany – after the 1936 Berlin games held when the Nazis were in power. And keen to illustrate that West Germany had transformed since that time, the government billed the 1972 event as “the cheerful games.” Sadly, though, the 1972 Olympics in Munich are remembered today for another reason besides the sporting events.

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You see, despite the many sporting achievements witnessed at the games, things took a turn for the worse. During the second week of events, a terrorist group called Black September took 11 people hostage. And the captives were subsequently all killed, as were a police officer and the majority of the terrorists.

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As a result of the attack, the games were put on a temporary hold. But the event wasn’t abandoned entirely; the competitions would quickly resume, in fact. Indeed, as the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, put it, “The games must go on.”

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But in acknowledgment of the terrible affair, a service was organized to take place in the Olympic Stadium. Then – after a mere day’s interruption – the sporting contests once again resumed. And by the time the games had closed, there were a number of notable highlights to pore over.

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Perhaps the most contentious of these highlights came during the men’s basketball final. This showdown saw the United States going up against its bitter Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. And given the pre-existing tensions between the two countries, it’s perhaps fitting that the event attracted such strife.

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Going into the game, the United States was generally regarded as the favorite to win. After all, the team had never once been defeated in an Olympic basketball game since the sport’s introduction in 1936. Yet from the early 1950s onward, the Soviets had steadily risen up the ranks, securing several accolades along the way.

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Indeed, the Soviet Union had taken home silver medals in the men’s basketball at the 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games, and in 1968 it took home the bronze. Meanwhile, beyond the Olympics, the Soviets had actually defeated the U.S. at the World Championship – though the Americans had reportedly sent a weaker team to this competition.

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But in any case, the United States was firmly expected to take home Olympic gold in 1972 at the expense of its Soviet challengers. Yet when it came to the actual game, things did not go to plan. In fact, events took a turn for the downright absurd.

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From its earliest stages, the game was looking rocky for the U.S. team, and the Soviets had the lead at the midway point. The start of the second half didn’t look much better for the Americans, either. And with ten minutes to go, the Soviets were up by ten points.

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But with defeat looming, the Americans rallied and cut the Soviets’ lead to a single point. Then, in the dying moments of the game, the U.S. team earned a couple of free throws – both of which were scored. So with only seconds remaining, the U.S. had taken the lead and were set for a remarkable victory.

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But the drama was far from over. In the midst of the Americans’ two free throws, the Soviet team had called for a time-out – something which their opponents claimed was against the rules. But after the American had picked up their two points at the charity stripe – and with only a second left on the clock – the time-out was granted.

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The game nonetheless appeared to be set in the Americans’ favor. But then Dr. William Jones, the British secretary of basketball’s governing body FIBA, intervened. He insisted that the clock be put back to three seconds instead of one – and so the game was still alive.

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The Soviets seemed to waste this extra chance, though, throwing a loose pass that sent the Americans into a roar of excitement. But yet again the game’s officials insisted that the three seconds be played out. Apparently, the clock had not been rectified by the time that the last play had taken place – and so the game continued.

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So once again the game was back to seeing out its last three seconds – but this time the Soviets did not waste their opportunity. They took advantage of the turmoil of the game’s latter stages and scored – ultimately ending the United States’ perfect run in men’s Olympic basketball.

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The Soviets were the gold medalists of 1972, while the Americans were relegated to silver. Given the controversial circumstances of their loss, however, the U.S. team refused to take home their medals. In fact, according to The Guardian, the awards remain in a vault in Switzerland all these decades later.

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The events of the men’s basketball final at the 1972 Munich Olympics make for a grim memory in United States’ sporting history, then. But in spite of that episode, the games also resulted in a number of U.S. successes. And perhaps the most impressive of these takes us back to Mark Spitz.

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Spitz arrived at the games determined to make amends for his perceived failure at the 1968 competition. Indeed, he was intent on improving on his previous haul and set his sights on winning six gold medals at the Munich games. He had trained hard in the four years beforehand, too – and this time around he was also sporting a new look.

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That’s right: Spitz showed up to the games wearing a sizable mustache above his upper lip. This was particularly notable during this period, too, as other swimmers had taken to removing the hair from their bodies – believing less hair would boost a competitor’s racing time.

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Spitz’s new facial hair caused quite a stir when he arrived in Munich, then. Indeed, he recalled to Time magazine in 2004, “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.”

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There were still doubts about whether Spitz’s facial hair would hinder his performance, though. At one stage, a Russian journalist asked Spitz whether or not he thought that his mustache would slow him down. And the swimmer’s response was intriguing. Yes, Spitz told the BBC in 2012, “I don’t know why I said this, I said, ‘No, it doesn’t slow me down. It deflects the water away from my mouth. It allows my head to get a lot lower and more streamlined.”

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But whether Spitz’s mustache actually made any impact or not, the American swim star achieved his goal of six Olympic gold medals. In fact, he went one further for a grand total of seven. And not only that, but he managed to achieve world records in each and every one of those races.

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Interestingly, Spitz had actually considered not racing in the 100-meter freestyle as he was concerned that he might not come first. In fact, just minutes ahead of the event, Spitz told ABC, “If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.”

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So with the pressure mounting, Spitz’s coach was forced to intervene. As the athlete himself recalled to the BBC, the trainer apparently told Spitz, “They are going to call you chicken if you don’t swim. If someone else wins the [100-meter freestyle] they will be known as the fastest swimmer in the world.’”

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But as things turned out, Spitz decided to swim, and he ended up winning his seven medals. To this day, in fact, the American is one of only five athletes to win at least nine Olympic golds across their careers. And the swim star might well have racked up even more first-place finishes, but he retired after the Munich games at the young age of 22.

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In the wake of his Olympic glory, Spitz became a sporting idol and later – in 1999 – was ranked among the 50 greatest athletes of the century by ESPN. In fact, shortly after the summer of 1972, even athletes from rival countries sought to replicate his success. And so it seems that Spitz had inadvertently sown the seeds for a very particular trend.

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“All male Russian swimmers the next year [after the 1972 Olympics] had a mustache,” Spitz told the BBC. Indeed, it seems that the Soviet swim team had taken the American’s mustache claims to heart; they must really have believed that it helped to make him a quicker swimmer!

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The Soviets probably soon realized that there were more reasons for Spitz’s success than simply facial hair, though. As for the man himself, well it turns out that he grew the mustache for a far more arbitrary reason than to help with his speed. In 2004 Time magazine asked him about the real reason for the facial hair – to which the Olympian responded, “I grew the mustache because a coach in college said I couldn’t grow one.”

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So it would appear that Spitz’s mustache was born out of plain stubbornness rather than a sincere belief that it would aid his swimming. Yet even so, his Russian rivals seemingly took the facial hair concept quite seriously and thought it best to grow their own. After all, given Spitz’s record-breaking feats, it was probably worth a shot.

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