There was a lot of bitter grumbling around Long Beach, Calif. early this year when Mark Spitz, the world's greatest teen-age swimmer, announced that he was jilting Long Beach State College to attend Indiana University. The loudest complaints came from Long Beach Coach Don Gambril, and quite naturally so, since Indiana landing Spitz was roughly comparable to UCLA getting Lew Alcindor.
The reason he chose Indiana, Spitz said, was because he wants to be a dentist and everyone knows that IU's dental school is almost as good as its swimming team. As Indiana Coach James E. (Doc) Counsilman said after Spitz was safely in Bloomington, "I told him one of the happiest days in my life will be when I say, 'Dr. Spitz, take a look at my teeth.' "
Spitz should only hope he pulls teeth as well as he swam last week while making his varsity debut in the NCAA championships in IU's 25-yard pool. The warm-blooded freshman from Santa Clara, Calif. (he wore gloves while not swimming) won three events—the 200-and 500-yard freestyle and the 100-yard butterfly—set two American records and teamed with Olympic hero Charlie Hickcox to lead Indiana to its second straight national title. (No world records were broken at Bloomington; they can only be set in 50-meter pools.) Spitz's performance stirred Counsilman to utter one of his panegyrics: "Mark is the greatest natural swimmer I've ever seen."
And what about poor old Don Gambril? Was he sitting in some Bloomington tap, crying in his beer? Not exactly. Gambril was busy unveiling a freshman ace of his own—Hans Fassnacht, a native of Mannheim, West Germany, who broke American records in the 400-yard individual medley and the 1,650-yard free.
April 7, 1969
Of course, Fassnacht's performances had nothing at all to do with the outcome of the meet, which was foreordained. So many talented swimmers have found their way to Bloomington that Counsilman's biggest worry before the NCAAs was not whether IU would win, but who to put on the 18-man squad allowed for championship meets. "Having this team," said one Indiana fan, "is like having an atomic bomb while everyone else just has a water gun."
The bomb went off on schedule, and all the psyching-up, shaving-down and tapering-off in the world couldn't have stayed it. Even with the usually reliable Hickcox getting upset in the 100-yard backstroke: the Indiana swimmers won seven of the 16 swimming events, while their splendid divers—Jim Henry, Win Young and Jon Hahnfeldt—swept the top three places in the one-meter and only failed to repeat in the three-meter because Hahnfeldt gashed his right heel during practice and watched the finals on crutches.
So, come Saturday night, after the Hoosiers had scored a record 427 points to beat runner-up Southern California by a 121-point margin, there was Counsilman, entirely clad in red all the way down to his silk underwear, being thrown into the water by his swimmers. "After we won last year I said we had the greatest team ever assembled," he said when he emerged. "Now I've got to say this team is the best ever."
Undoubtedly, the NCAA handed the championship to Indiana when it decreed that freshman athletes could compete in all varsity sports except football and basketball. "We probably could have won without the freshmen," Counsilman said, "but we would have been fighting for our lives." Indiana used five freshmen, including Spitz, and all of them scored points. Among Indiana's main rivals, the rule strengthened USC and Stanford, but it hurt Yale, which couldn't use freshmen because the Ivy League typically withheld its approval.
While Spitz was familiar enough, even notorious, Fassnacht needed an introduction. The son of a police inspector, he was an undistinguished member of West Germany's Olympic team, finishing no higher than sixth in three events. Gambril saw something that everyone else overlooked, however, and invited him to enroll at Long Beach. When he flew over from Germany in December, Fassnacht weighed 207 pounds, but he quickly trimmed down to a solid 180. He also improved his speed and stroke enough that insiders gave him a chance against Spitz in their preliminary heat in the 500 Thursday afternoon.
Twice, in the heat and again in the final that night, Spitz and Fassnacht matched stroke for stroke. Fassnacht's stroke was not as pretty as Spitz's, which swimmers tend to regard the same way baseball fans do Ted Williams' swing, but Fassnacht compensated with conditioning and a fierce stubbornness. They were so close at the finish of the heat that Fassnacht had flashed a few victory signs before finding out that Spitz had won. Each was clocked in 4:33.2, almost four full seconds better than the American record. They repeated their act in the final, Spitz winning with a 4:33.48 to Fassnacht's 4:33.57.
While Spitz was fighting off Fassnacht, Hickcox was sitting in a corner of the deck, psyching up for the 200 IM. Still a little weak from a severe cold, he had to worry about beating Michigan's Juan Bello, an Olympian from Peru who had upset him in the Big Ten championships. "I'll be ready when it counts the most," Hickcox had said at the time. Good as his word, he beat Bello by a tenth of a second.
On Friday afternoon USC Coach Peter Daland looked up at the scoreboard, which read Indiana 120, USC 71, and shook his head. "That," he said, "is the most points we ever scored on the first day, including the five years we won it, and we're still behind." USC didn't catch Indiana but Friday night's finals didn't lack excitement. Stanford's John Ferris did a 1:49.6 in the 200 fly, yet another American record. Spitz normally would have competed in this race, but Counsilman saved him to swim against Bello and USC's Frank Heckl in the 200 free, which was fine with Ferris. "Without Mark in there, everything was great," he said. "I usually worry about him too much. This time I just swam as fast as I could and let them try to catch me."
Spitz made Counsilman's strategy look good when he won the 200 free in 1:39.5, bettering by a full second the American record he set last year at Santa Clara High. Indiana then finished 1-2-4 in the 100-yard breaststroke. The winner, Don McKenzie, had shaved his head and he said this may have helped him set a new American record of 58.3. "Besides," he said, "I don't go for this long hair anyway." But McKenzie's performance didn't please Counsilman quite as much as that of the fourth-place finisher, a big, blond freshman named Jim Counsilman Jr.
The meet's first big upset, and Indiana's first big disappointment, came when Stanford's Fred Haywood gave Hickcox his first championship defeat in the 100 back. Missing two turns and banging into the lane markers throughout the last lap, Hickcox finished in 52.46 to Haywood's 52.44.
One event without a record was a long dry spell, so it was up to Fassnacht to get the crowd back on its feet. He did just that in the 400 IM, finishing in 4:07.7 to break the American record. Said Hans, "I hope I can go faster."
In Friday night's finale, the 800 freestyle relay, Indiana broke the American record by half a second with a 6:50.2, but USC's team of George Watson, Mark Mader, Greg Charlton and Heckl swam a 6:49.5. The most amazing leg of all was Spitz's anchor. Trailing by almost three body lengths at the start, Spitz seemed to lift himself right on top of the water and narrowed the gap to scant inches at the finish. "I never saw anyone who can turn it on like he can," said Counsilman, who, despite Indiana's huge lead, was so wound up that he slipped back to the pool at 3 a.m. for a solitary dip in the dark.
Seemingly as fresh as he was when he nearly upset Spitz, Fassnacht got the final night started with his astonishing performance in the 1,650. Only a year ago UCLA's Mike Burton broke the 16-minute barrier, and swimming buffs predicted that his record would be around for a while. Fassnacht swam a 15:54.2, lopping more than five seconds off it. Said Hans, "I feel pretty good now."
The 200-yard backstroke, besides being Hickcox's last individual event for Indiana, also gave him an opportunity to settle up with Haywood. Hickcox opened a big lead midway through the race and kicked hard to finish in 1:53.6, an American record, while Haywood was a badly beaten fourth. "I wanted to set the record for Doc," Hickcox said, "especially after last night."
No sooner was the final race over than McKenzie rang a dinner bell and the entire Indiana team leaped off the five-meter board, including none other than Mark Spitz.
Spitz came to Indiana with the well-documented reputation of being a spoiled brat, a misfit and a loner, but he seems to be growing up. "He fights for the team as much as he does for himself now," said Counsilman, "and the kids all like him. He's actually learned to smile and laugh."