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Spitz golden once again in Phelps spotlight

Aug. 16, 2008, 9:09 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The famous mustache is long gone, the jet black hair now gray.

His record is about to crumble, and someone else has already taken his place as America's greatest swimmer. The seven gold medals from another time gather dust in a California bank vault.

Mark Spitz could be excused for feeling conflicted. Anyone else might even be a bit bitter.

But he has watched every race, cheered every time.

And when Michael Phelps won his seventh gold by the narrowest of margins to tie Spitz's record for a single Olympics, Spitz was cheering even more.

"I was almost giddy with excitement," Spitz said. "It's so befitting of Michael to do it like that. I won a race by a hundredth of a second like he did and I'm not giving my medal back."

Spitz has a lot of reasons to cheer, even from halfway around the world in Detroit, where he was watching the Phelps spectacle unfold on television after attending his youngest son's basketball tournament.

Thirty-six years after he first cashed in on his Olympic medal haul, Phelps has helped Spitz feel golden once again.

"I'm ecstatic," Spitz told The Associated Press by phone. "I always wondered what my feelings would be. I feel a tremendous load off my back. Somebody told me years ago you judge one's character by the company you keep, and I'm just happy to be in the company of Michael Phelps. That's the bottom line."

Thanks to Phelps, millions who had never heard of Spitz now know his name. Those who know who he is now have a new appreciation for what he did.

The phone is ringing more than it did, and the speaking fee will surely go up.

About the only thing he has to complain about is no one invited him to the party to join in on the fun.

"This thing Michael did is probably going to spur a lot more life into me," Spitz said. "But I'm still going to be who I am."

Spitz had a chance to thank Phelps in person when NBC hooked them up just moments after Phelps tied his record, finishing one-hundredth of a second ahead of Milorad Cavic in the 100 butterfly.

It was one great swimmer to another, with just Bob Costas in between.

"I was going to be trite and say to him and ask him this question: What was the most difficult race and when did you know you had a chance to win seven gold medals?" Spitz said. "I don't have to. It was tonight, and it was epic."

Epic could have been the word used to describe Spitz, who has made a handsome living off his name since setting seven world records in winning seven medals in Munich in 1972. Even in the tragic wake of the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, Spitz became the biggest Olympic star since Jesse Owens.

Unlike Phelps, who already commands an estimated $5 million a year and now figures to make much, much more, Spitz never made a dime while he was swimming. Olympic athletes were strict amateurs then, and Olympic boss Avery Brundage didn't hesitate to kick them out of the games if he suspected they were profiting from what they did.

Dental school paled as an option, though, after Spitz was whisked away from Munich. He quickly signed with the William Morris agency, which years before had turned swimmer Johnny Weissmuller into Tarzan, and almost as quickly was featured on a poster in his tiny Speedo with the seven golds around his neck.

He signed endorsement deals with a razor company and did milk commercials. He appeared on the Bob Hope Show, did cameos on other programs, and there was talk he would soon be in the movies.

"I think he's got a real future in our business," Hope said. "He makes Superman look like Truman Capote."

Unfortunately, Spitz was a lot better swimmer than he was an actor and the Hollywood career fizzled. But he made several million dollars off his endorsements, more than enough to keep him comfortable while he launched a second career as a motivational speaker.

Mostly, though, he was pretty much forgotten until Phelps came along to challenge his record. For Spitz, the timing couldn't have been better, though he genuinely seems to want Phelps to succeed.

Spitz would like to be in closer company with Phelps, but that's another story. He complained recently that International Olympic Committee officials should have invited him to Beijing as a special guest to watch Phelps go for his record.

Instead, he'll be watching on television Saturday night like most of America when Phelps goes for No. 8 in a relay the United States has never lost in the Olympics. He'll likely see Phelps put another gold around his neck, maybe even pose with all eight the way Spitz did.

He's brought those medals out only three times since - once when a French sports magazine paid him a bundle to replicate his iconic pose and twice when each of his two sons turned seven.

With Phelps making history, though, he may get the urge to visit them more often.

If nothing else, just to remind himself how golden he once was.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org