Mark Spitz will try to bridge swimming's generation gap today in his first competitive race since launching his comeback attempt more than a year ago.
In a made-for-television event, Spitz will race world champion freestyler Tom Jager in a 50-meter butterfly at the Mission Viejo International Sports Complex.Fifteen years separate the 41-year-old Spitz and Jager, who is the world champion and world record-holder in the 50-meter freestyle and thereby known as the fastest human in water.
What Spitz wants from the race is a time, preferably a good one, so that the skeptics will start taking his comeback seriously.
"Hopefully, once and for all we'll be able to forget that I'm 41 and just look at times," he said.
But the age factor is hard to overlook, especially since the match race is sponsored by Clairol in promotion of a haircolor formula to cover gray hair.
And even Jager picked up on the generational theme at a prerace news conference Thursday.
"I feel I'm here representing the athletes of my generation against the athletes of Mark's generation," he said.
Spitz, whose ultimate goal is making the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in the 100 fly, aims to swim the 50 in around 25.38 seconds, which was his 50-meter split when he won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter fly 181/2 years ago in Munich.
His coach, Ron Ballatore of UCLA, said he originally planned Spitz's first race for the summer, but decided he needed a test sooner.
The race is worth $30,000, with the winner taking home $20,000.
Two weeks after meeting Jager, Spitz will face Matt Biondi, winner of five Olympic gold medals in 1988, in a 50-meter butterfly. The prize money in that race is $50,000, with $35,000 going to the winner.
"These guys are the best in the world and I'm real proud and tickled that I get to see how I fare with them at this particular time in my training," Spitz said.
"I've never trained a guy 40 years old on this level," he said. "We had to start slow. You can get injured more easily."
Ballatore won't discuss Spitz's practice times, but said his swimmer is ready to go a full 100 meters and will probably do so in a meet this summer.
For now, though, Spitz will learn from Jager how much work lies ahead for him.