For 36 years, Mark Spitz stood on a podium above every athlete in Olympic history, with his record-setting seven gold medals in swimming in Munich in 1972.
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Before Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, Spitz was unsure if he ever would see his record broken. But now the 62-year-old legend thinks the daunting challenge may have been just as difficult as what Phelps faces this summer in London.
"What he was going for was to beat Mark Spitz," Spitz said Thursday in New York City, where he was participating in a fundraiser for after-school sports programs.
"He lived, breathed, slept and ate that for eight years. Now it’s different. Now he’s got [rival] Ryan Lochte pushing him. He was always hunting me. Now he’s the hunted."
"I’d still never bet against him," he added.
Spitz, who retired after Munich, never attempted to re-create his magnum opus. Spitz said he thinks Phelps is in a no-win situation since the Baltimore native is expected to win every race.
Phelps already has said he will not compete in eight events again, and Spitz doesn’t blame him.
"I personally wouldn’t have swum in as many events," Spitz said. "I would’ve been more conservative. If it was me, I would rather swim in six events and win six gold medals than swim in eight or nine with a sprinkling of silver and bronze. I don’t think he’s interested in that. I can’t imagine why he would be."
Lochte, the 27-year-old American and six-time Olympic medalist, is Phelps’ top rival and biggest threat at the London Olympics. At the 2011 World Championships, Lochte won both head-to-head races.
Though they won’t be in many of the same races, when they are, Spitz said he will be another curious fan waiting to see who will emerge victorious.
"It’s going to be great TV," Spitz said. "It’s going to be real interesting to see what Lochte may or may not do against his rival. It’s going to be a great competition, and I know there’s nothing Lochte would rather do than beat Phelps."