Mark Spitz appears like a ghost from Olympics past, a swimming icon who was last seen in 1972 Munich Games wrapping a seventh gold medal around his neck.
After that, he dabbled in dentistry and Southern California real estate. The price of land skyrocketed. His fame plummeted.
Then, 1 1/2 years ago, Spitz decided to plunge back into the pool. It was the unlikeliest of comebacks -- a 40-year-old old man trying to reclaim his legend in a sport dominated by teen-agers.
But ready or not, Spitz, now 41, will display whatever talent he has left in a series of nationally televised 50-meter butterfly match races at the Mission Viejo (Calif.) Sports Complex. Today he'll meet Tom Jager, whose specialty is the 50-meter freestyle. On April 27, he'll take on Matt Biondi, winner of five Olympic golds at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Today's race will be shown on ABC's Wide World of Sports (Channel 13). The show begins at 4:30 p.m.
"I'm nervous as all get out and it's not because I'm finally going to swim in front of people," Spitz said. "I want to perform at the level I should be able to do without letting the crowd or the nature of the event influence my ability. When I was younger, on any given day, a lot of guys could beat me. But I was always good at getting my act together. I don't know if I have that in me to do."
Spitz has been training at UCLA. He still finds time to watch over his real estate investments, plus, he is cashing in on the comeback, serving as a spokesman for Clairol. He is also swimming for money: $20,000 to the winner of the race against Jager, and $35,000 to the winner of the race against Biondi.
Older athletes returning to their sport is no fad, said Spitz. Despite the failed comeback of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, Spitz said other, more successful returns will be launched.
"What we're seeing is a bunch of athletes who have come from a generation back in the 1960s and 1970s, a period when training progressed by leaps and bounds," he said. "Basically, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, nothing really happened, especially in swimming. If you keep yourself in shape, you can make it back."
Spitz's goal remains winning a place on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona, Spain. Spitz, who ruptured a disk in his back in November 1989, admits that he often has doubts about his comeback. But he is eager to prove his ability against another generation of competitors.
"A year ago, I would have said I had a 10 percent chance to get to Barcelona," he said. "Now, my chances are 50-50. Most everyone I have talked to has given me encouragement. No one has told me to get out of the sport. This is definitely worth the effort."
* The Savage River in Western Maryland has emerged as the prime candidate to play host to the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials in whitewater canoe-kayak. Officials from the state and the federation are trying to work out a formal contract.
"We've got an agreement in principle, but we're still working on the contract," said Mike Marqua, director of the sports promotion office in the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development.
The dates for the trials are May 6-7. The Savage River course was tested by the sport's top competitors at the 1989 World Championships.
* A postscript on the announcement that three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Janet Evans and world record holder Melvin Stewart were dropping out of college competition because of fears that new NCAA rules would reduce their training time in the pool.
It turns out that the pending changes -- limiting student athletes to 20-hours per-week training -- have been misinterpreted, said NCAA spokesman Jim Marchiony.
"That limit refers to the amount of time that a coach can require a student athlete to participate in his or her sport," Marchiony said. Swimmers can voluntarily practice as many hours as they want. The coach may be present during voluntary individual workouts when the student athlete uses the institution's facilities. The coach just can't require you to spend more than 20 hours a week."
The interpretation probably won't stem the tidal wave out of the pool, however. The lure of money may entice others to forgo their college eligibility to cash in. That would lead to diminished competition in the NCAA championships.
As Evans said: "Nobody wants to swim in a bogus meet."