In Wake of Spitz’ s Lost Record, Memphian Lewis Nolan Remembers the Swimmer 

Lewis Nolan is well known in the Mid-South area as the former longtime business editor of The Commercial Appeal and, subsequently, as a communications executive with Schering-Plough and Guardsmark. Less well known is the major brain surgery undergone by Nolan in recent years to repair a burst aneurysm that left him comatose for more than a year.

Miraculously, the gregarious Nolan was restored to his full mental acuity -- total recall and all - with the exception of the time lost during the period when he lay unconscious. One of the things Nolan remembers keenly - and was willing to share -- is his experience in California with a youthful Mark Spitz, the former Olympic swimming champion whose record of seven gold medals won in a single Olympiad was just eclipsed by the phenomenal Michael Phelps.

Nolan shared the memory on Saturday while working out on the exercise bike at the French Riviera Spa at Poplar and Highland. Talking about Spitz and Phelps -- who was just revealed, thanks to NBC's TV coverage, to be the consumer of 12,000 (!) calories per day -- gave the portly Nolan a chance to explain why it was that he, a former competitive swimmer himself, has fought a largely losing battle with his weight during his middle years.

"You have to burn a lot of calories when you're swimming, which means you eat a lot. Once you get out of the water, you have a tendency to keep eating," Nolan said ruefully while churning away on the bike.

A onetime resident of Sacramento, California, Nolan told a tale of coaching a team of pre-teen swimmers against one that included young Mark Spitz, a well-trained prodigy who won meet after meet. The thing that astounded Nolan was that once, after Spitz had beaten the other young swimmers handily, his father came storming down to poolside chewing him out in the strongest terms for sloughing off on his finishing time.

"It was unbelievable! I'd never heard a child addressed like that by a parent. Everybody else was embarrassed for the kid," Nolan remembers. And he was not surprised years later when he encountered an older version of Mark Spitz competing in meets for Santa Clara High School. By then, says Nolan, the teenage Spitz had developed a swagger and had apparently assimilated his father's irascible mode. "To put it bluntly, he was a prick," Nolan remembers.

Afterward, of course, came Spitz's collegiate and Olympic career, which he crowned by winning an unprecedented seven gold models at the Munich games in 1972. The record held for all Olympic athletes until last weekend when Phelps, taking the butterfly leg in the 400-meter medley relay for the U.S. team, earned his eighth gold model in the Beijing Olympics.

Spitz was often interviewed in the wake of Phelps' triumph, and the now non-record-holder consistently expressed himself with modesty and admiration for the man who had supplanted him

click to enlarge Lewis Nolan on the exercise bike - JB
  • jb
  • Lewis Nolan on the exercise bike

Here is one version, in the Los Angeles Times, of what Spitz said about Phelps' achievement: "Now the whole world knows. We are so proud of you here, Michael, in America and the way you've handled yourself. . . . You represent such an inspiration to youngsters around the world. You have a tremendous responsibility for all those people you are going to inspire over the next number of years. I know that you will wear the crown well.

"You know, you weren't born when I did what I did. I'm sure I was a part of your inspiration, and I take that as a full compliment. They say you judge one's character by the company that you keep, and I'm happy to keep company with you."

Nolan for one was surprised - and impressed. "He was gracious, no doubt about it."

He might not have been so surprised had he seen an earlier quote from Spitz, also in the LA Times. Before Phelps competed in his events, Spitz had expected to be asked to come to Beijing as an honored spectator. But, as he told the Times, "I never got invited. You don't go to the Olympics just to say, 'I am going to go.' Especially because of who I am. I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That's almost demeaning to me. It is not almost -- it is.

"They voted me one of the top five Olympians [of] all time. Some are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me. Yes, I am a bit upset about it."

Oh, well. That sounds more like someone Lewis Nolan might remember.

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