Spitz, now 71, held the record of seven gold medals in a single Games when he dominated the pool in Munich in 1972, a tally that was surpassed by Michael Phelps in 2008.
That was after Spitz had backed himself to win six golds in Mexico City in 1968, only to win two, both in relays — a disappointment that he says motivated him to achieve his record-breaking feat four years later.
Here, the former swimmer from the United States outlines the lessons he learned over the course of his Olympic career.
1. Be prepared, be motivated, and be lucky
A lot of people going to the Olympic Games have trained their whole life to do so. I once calculated that over the 13 or 14 years of my career leading up to Munich, I had swum around 26,000 miles — enough to go around the equator, the whole of this planet.
But then, so did another 200,000 athletes who were swimmers at the time. So, what singled me out? Maybe it was a little bit of luck. Maybe it was the program that I was in. Maybe it was my “failure” in 1968 that motivated me to do better.
2. Life in the Olympic village
After they compete, maybe they’ll show back up at the village — once they’ve secured the gold medal.
3. Beware of distractions
There’s a great atmosphere in the village, good for building friendships. But you’re all there to do a job.
Sometimes I felt that the village wasn’t for me, it could be very distracting. It certainly was in 1968, when the swimming events were held in the second week. I was young and I lost part of my focus, I got involved in trading pins and doing all the other stuff.
It’s different now, though. Athletes are trained to stay sharp, regardless of when their competition is.
4. If at first you don’t succeed …
I often think of Doug Russell in 1968. He swam slower than my world record in the 100m butterfly but still won the gold; I only got silver. But his win meant that he got to swim in the medley relay, not me. So, my silver potentially cost me two golds.
In my final event, the 200m butterfly, I could have gone two seconds slower than my personal best and won the gold, but I was eight seconds slower and I finished dead last. The 200 ‘fly turned out to be my first race in Munich and I made sure that wasn’t ever going to happen again.
They called me a failure and that got to me. So, a bad experience can inspire somebody to become very successful.
5. A little misdirection doesn’t hurt …
My Russian rivals at Munich had never seen me swim in person and they were gracious enough to give me a lane during one of their practice sessions.
I knew they were taking pictures of me, so I started doing some stupid stroke that had nothing to do with anything. They asked if I always swam like that and I said “yeah.”
Then they asked if my mustache slowed me down. I’d been planning to shave it off that night, but I found myself saying that it actually deflected the water away from my mouth and I could get my face a lot lower and my body more streamlined. It probably did slow me down by a few hundredths of a second, but I was winning by seconds — so it didn’t matter.
Anyway, after that, I decided to keep the mustache and it ended up being an interesting trademark!
6. Be realistic
Roughly 10,000 athletes go to the Summer Games, and there are about 250 events.
If you include all the team sports, around 1,000 medals will be handed out. So that means that only 10% of the athletes competing are going to be “successful.”
For many, just getting to the Games is an achievement, but it’s only really about 15% who are in the hunt for the hardware. There are going to be a lot of disappointments.
7. If you make it to the podium, make the most of the moment …
Take it all in because it will never happen again; at no other point in your life is somebody going to stick you on a podium like that and they’re not going to play your national anthem.
In later life, your success won’t be measured in the same way, because there’s always going to be somebody that made a better deal, a bigger deal, a bigger acquisition with more money.
So, if you’re lucky enough to be one of those people, it’s only going to be for a moment and then everybody else moves on. You’ve got to learn to live with that.