Phelps vs. Spitz: Who's better?

Phelps or Spitz: Swimming expert weighs in on stars

07/09/2008 1:36 AM

07/09/2008 4:04 PM

OMAHA, Neb. — Ken Treadway was picking at a cluster of mixed greens when the topic of Michael Phelps came up.

Could Phelps actually do it? Could he break the most prized record in swimming — Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics?

Treadway looked toward two of the men sitting with him at a riverfront restaurant. He asked the men, Peter Deland and Don Gambril, what they thought. Deland and Gambril knew Treadway before he worked with Spitz during the 1968 and '72 Olympics. They knew him after Treadway retired from swimming, when he and his wife, Bettie, bought the house in Overland Park, Kan., they've lived in for 22 years.

"So," Treadway says, his fork still in his hand, "who is the best swimmer of all time?"

The men thought for a moment.

"There's no question," Deland says. "It's Michael Phelps."

Now it's Gambril's turn.

"I don't know," he says. "Phelps is definitely the heir apparent. I still think it's Spitz."

Treadway smiled and took another bite of black and bleu salad. He was in town to receive the Presidents Award for lifetime achievement by the International Swimming Hall of Fame on Sunday. But on the banks of the Missouri River on Saturday, the 70-something men with chlorine in their blood had a debate going.

Treadway went through heaven and hell with Spitz. The son of Oklahoma sharecroppers was on the Olympic team staff while the wunderkind blazed through the '68 Games for gold medals in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle relays.

Four years later, Treadway was on the platform when Spitz won seven golds, a number never before touched or even dreamed of — until Phelps came along. And Treadway was in the coaches' condo when shots rang out in an adjacent building: Palestinian terrorists had assault rifles in their hands and hostages in their control. Treadway's first thoughts weren't of his safety but were for the 22-year-old swimmer he'd grown to think of like a son.

Treadway and Spitz remained friends long after the triumph and ordeal. That was Spitz's final Olympics, and Treadway began downshifting toward retirement. Now, Treadway is the bridge that spans the 36-year gap between Spitz and Phelps.

Treadway leaned back in his chair and looked out the window toward the Qwest Center, where in a few hours Phelps would qualify for his eighth event. Treadway's friends were waiting for Treadway to chime in.

"You know what?" Treadway says. "It's Mike Phelps. And I think Mark would tell you the same thing."

A familiar, frightening sound

Treadway recognized the sound of gunfire. He was a soldier in the Army, and he learned during three years in Korea what enemy rifle fire sounded like.

Treadway rolled over and out of bed, staying low while he ran down the hall to tell his fellow Olympic team staff members to get away from the windows. It was the night after the final swimming event of the 1972 Olympics.

Treadway didn't know if the shots came from his building or the one he could see 200 yards out his window. When the shots stopped and 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage, Treadway peeked out his hotel window and saw the outline of a terrorist wearing a brown mask. At the end of the ordeal, all the hostages were dead, killed by members of the group Black September.

"Sad day in the world," he says now.

Treadway won't talk much about this part, but he'll tell you what he can. Coaches and athletes stayed in different quarters at the '72 Games. Spitz was an American sports hero and Jewish; Olympics officials feared he might be a terrorist target. A few hours after standing on the gold-medal platform for the seventh time, Spitz was on the floor of an Olympic Village condo, waiting for someone to tell him what to do next.

Treadway says Spitz was used to attention and doing things in secret. When he left the Munich Schwimmhalle, Treadway instructed his wife and their 17-year-old daughter, Tanya, to drive a van with Spitz crouched on the rear floorboard. Treadway would follow them in another van, and the media and fans would think Spitz was with him.

"For him to get out of a car in front of a stadium, it becomes very alarming," Treadway says. "We had to use a little bit of deception."

Within hours of the first gunshots, Treadway recalls, Spitz had been whisked out of the building in secret by Olympics and U.S. officials and was on his way out of Germany.

Bettie Treadway had no idea her husband was safe until she heard an update on Armed Forces Radio, saying no Americans were hurt in the terrorist attack. She was relieved but wanted no more of Munich or its Olympics. She sold her two tickets to the closing ceremony and took an early flight to Copenhagen, Denmark.

It was there, two days later, that Treadway was reunited with his family.

"We all felt like: Thank God," Bettie Treadway says.

When Treadway returned to the United States, he called Spitz.

"We didn't talk much about it," Treadway says. "We were still sorely in a state of shock. We were just glad it was all over."

Phelps-Spitz a 'dead heat'

Treadway says Spitz — naturally quiet and focused — might have been even better prepared for the media and demands of the athlete who emerges as America's face.

Treadway is 78 now. He has watched as swimming has gone from a niche activity to a full-fledged sport, complete with multimillion-dollar endorsement deals for top swimmers.

Although they competed in eras three decades apart, Treadway says he sees similarities in Spitz and Phelps. Both are similarly shaped, with broad shoulders and long arms. Both are unflinching competitors, and both have the passion to remain dedicated long enough to have a chance at seven or eight gold medals.

If they swam against each other today, with the same advantages and distractions, Treadway says it would be a "dead heat."

"Both of them have that vision," he says. "You really have to stop and think about it: An athlete like this comes along maybe once a decade. And I've been lucky enough to watch both of them."

Treadway sits in that riverfront restaurant and jaws with the old crew. They debate this and that, take a bite, and get back to talking.

After decades of traveling and watching Olympians, this meal is as close as Treadway will get to this year's Games — he and his wife won't go to Beijing next month.

Treadway says he spoke last week with Spitz, and the two talked about Phelps and the chances that the old record might be broken, how the bridge between Spitz and Phelps was closing with each of Phelps' races.

Treadway hasn't met Phelps but watched "every minute" of the 23-year-old's events last week. He paid close attention even though his coaching and mentoring days are over.

Yeah, Treadway is partial to the youngster. He says Phelps has proven he's the greatest swimmer of all time, even before he challenges Spitz's record.

But when Phelps does try, Treadway will be somewhere with a television.

"We'll be watching. I can guarantee you that," he says. "I'll be pulling for him."

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