In the Pool: Mark Spitz to the rescue
Once, visitors to the International Swimming Hall of Fame could walk in the door and step onto the starting block Mark Spitz dived from to win six of his seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics. They could watch clips of his races, see his Olympic uniforms and get their pictures taken next to a wax figure that Spitz joked looked more like the singer Robert Goulet.But the Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., fell on hard times in recent years. Its displays were deteriorating, its finances were a shambles and a burglary last December cost it much of its most valuable memorabilia.So none other than Spitz is stepping in to help. As part of a sweeping reorganization designed to save the hall, Spitz will become chairman of a new board.”The legacy of our sport was in jeopardy,” Spitz said Friday in a telephone interview from his home in Southern California. “I think it’s time to be passed that responsibility, to get something happening in a positive way.”Last year, Spitz was one of 20 Olympians who were so angry with the state of the hall that they asked to have their memorabilia removed.This helped force the resignation of the hall’s former chief executive, Sam Freas. When the new chief executive, Bruce Wigo, took over in mid-May, he enlisted the help of a corporate turnaround specialist and persuaded the 21-member board to resign and give him special authority to appoint a new one.That is the kind of drastic move that gets attention in business circles, and luring Spitz, whose gold-medal haul made him a national icon, turned heads in the sports world.”People get old and die, but corporations and nonprofits get a chance at new life,” said Wigo, the former head of USA Water Polo and the father of Wolf Wigo, a three-time Olympian in water polo. “This place is worth saving.”But convincing Spitz, now 55 and a successful businessman, was not automatic. Spitz has done his share of motivational speaking and corporate appearances, but he has stayed out of sports administration circles and largely avoided Olympic politics.Last year, he made a special appearance at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials to support Michael Phelps’ quest to break his record for gold medals in an Olympic Games. Spitz believed it would help the sport. (Phelps ended up with eight medals, six of them gold.)It also readied Spitz to lend his name to another cause.”I think if you had asked me 10 years ago, I might have had a different answer,” he said. “But timing is everything, and all of these things happened now. I’m honored that somebody thought that I could help turn this around.”
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