My life: Mark Spitz
The American Olympic swimmer tells Mathew Scott his secret to winning - and, no, it wasn't the moustache
SPLASHDOWN It all started in 1959, when I was nine, and it was summer. I was put into a YMCA summer camp with my best friend, and they had a big pool. They lined us up along one side, with us in the pool holding onto the side, and they made us swim across. The water was cold so I just sprinted straight across without stopping. Little did I know that that was exactly what they were looking for. They were picking a swimming team. My best friend's name was Cooper so, as it was being done alphabetically, he got to go first. He stopped halfway and waved to me, showboating and showing off. He never got asked to join the team, but I did. By the time I was about 14, I was always coming third. My father noticed that the kids who were beating me belonged to another club in another town and they were being trained by an Olympian. So my parents started to drive me to that club and I was beating those kids within 30 days. I think that to become the best, you have to train with the best. Either go to them or make them come to you. And as a parent you have to decide just how far you want your kid to go.
GOLD RUSH During high school, my friends would say, "Are you coming to the football game this weekend?" And I would say something like, "No, I am skipping school on Friday because on Thursday I'm flying to Paris for a swim meet and I'll be back on Sunday." So who was missing out? I had travelled the world before I was 18 - Russia, Japan, Australia. It was cooler than having world records because I got to get out of town. By the Mexico Olympics (in 1968), at the age of 18, I was in six events and the expectation was that I'd win six gold medals. I never made that claim and I hadn't even swum one of the events before, the 100-metre free. While I came away with two golds, a silver and a bronze, I didn't win an individual gold and I thought that was a failure. I had a sh***y week. No one had ever tried that many events before. I swam every single day over eight days. Ridiculous. Most people just have one event. So I went back to college and my coach prepared me mentally as well as physically. By 1972, I was ready and everyone knows the rest - I went out and won seven golds.
TEN FOR THE RECORD In my last two years (of competing) I swam in 21 races and never lost. In my last year, I raced 11 times and set 10 world records. I didn't enjoy winning as much as I hated and despised losing. The more you win, the more positive things happen to you and the more positive you become about your abilities. I made it a point not just to win, but to win by such margins that I had a safety factor. The same thing happened with Michael Phelps and … Tiger Woods. Opponents end up arguing about who will be first to be second.
LIP SERVICE When I look at pictures of myself swimming, I see that moustache. It got so much attention. I thought that if people were talking about my moustache, they were not going to be focused on beating me. The Russians were really interested in it and I knew they were watching me, so I made sure they heard me saying I thought it made me swim faster. The next time I saw them, of course, they all had moustaches. I knew then that I'd already won as they weren't focused on beating me - they were worried about the hair on their lips.
I think the Olympics are the epitome of reality television. Think about it - it's as real as it can get. I love to see the human stories that develop after all these athletes have trained so hard. You saw that again in London with the hype of the rivalries, like Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Phelps showed he was a true champion by coming back from a loss in the 400-metre medley and winning more medals.
ON DRY LAND When I became a businessman (Spitz is involved in real estate and has launched his own line of skincare products), I had already learned that things don't happen overnight. You have to put in the work. Athletes who achieve extreme success are motivated by different things. Because I came from an era when there was no professionalism, I did other things to prepare myself for life - I achieved a degree in biochemistry and got accepted into dental school. But once I went into the business world, I used what I learned and looked for the best people to work with. I think it's far better to surround yourself with corporate superstars with a sh***y idea than have the best idea with the worst team - that's a recipe for disaster. What I learned as an athlete is that the sweet smell of success can be duplicated by those who have experienced it. I only realised I had been successful once I retired. Then I looked back and thought, "Wow, what a journey."
Mark Spitz was visiting Hong Kong to launch a line of health supplements with New Vitality www.newvitality.hk.
And speaking of moustaches, please bear in mind next month is Movember, when gents throughout the city will be cultivating their upper lips to promote awareness of men's health issues. See hk.movember.com for details.