Biondi, Matt(hew)

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BIONDI, Matt(hew)

(b. 8 October 1965 in Moraga, California), swimmer who won eleven Olympic medals, including eight gold, and who is considered one of America's greatest Olympians and the best male freestyle swimmer ever.

Biondi grew up in an athletic household in southern California, the son of Nicolas Biondi, an ex-football player and coach, and Lucille Biondi. The middle of three children, he began swimming at age five for recreation but waited another ten years before swimming competitively at Campolindo High School in Moraga.

Biondi's feel for the water was apparent at an early age. He was just ten when Stuart Kahn, coach of the Moraga Valley summer team, told the audience at an awards banquet that Biondi was as good as John Naber, an Olympic medalist who won four golds and a silver at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. "I had a pretty good view of what the perfect stroke looked like," Kahn said later. "At age ten, Matt was better technically than any college swimmer."

Biondi's parents were careful to help him keep swimming in perspective. They wanted him to enjoy a normal childhood, free from competitive pressures and mindful of good sportsmanship. He recalled how his mother scolded him for throwing his racket in the middle of a tennis match: "She came through the fence, grabbed me by the ear right in the middle of the game and took me home. She never said anything." In addition to tennis, swimming, and water polo, Biondi played basketball and soccer, sang in the choir, and took piano lessons.

Yet Biondi understood he had a natural talent. "I knew. When I swam, I knew there was something special about me in the water, something I hadn't experienced in those other disciplines." When Biondi turned to competitive swimming in high school, he was talented but still years away from the form that would earn him a place in swimming history. He was so tall and lanky that his classmates called him "Spiderman." With his body still growing dramatically (at sixteen he was six feet, one inch tall and weighed 130 pounds), Biondi worked hard to perfect his technique. "I took practice very seriously. I was always conscious in practice—every lap, every stroke I was thinking about what I was doing and how I could make it better."

Stuart Kahn worked with Biondi to use his long body as an advantage, with his kick as a special weapon. As his body matured he eventually reached six feet, seven inches and 210 pounds, with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. Biondi was able to combine length and strength with finesse and technique to revolutionize freestyle swimming.

When Biondi entered the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1983, he was nearly complete as a swimmer. Berkeley swimming coach Nort Thornton remembers the first time he saw Biondi swim in high school: "I thought he had fins on." Thornton felt he needed only to help fine-tune Biondi's already prodigious technique.

At the 1984 Olympic trials, however, Biondi was still largely unknown, ranked fiftieth in the country in the 50-meter freestyle. To the surprise of the crowd, he finished fourth and earned a spot on the 4 x 100-meter relay. Veteran American swimmer and then–world record holder Rowdy Gaines good-naturedly dubbed Biondi "Matt who?" Together they would triumph at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As Biondi later recalled, "I won a gold medal even though no one had heard of me. Mostly I'd been a water polo player in high school."

But Biondi could not keep his name out of the headlines much longer. He won a record seven medals at the 1986 World Championships, including three golds. Entering the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, Biondi was at the top of his form, holding the ten fastest times ever in the 100-meter freestyle. He was scheduled to swim seven events—four individual and three relays. The pressure was on Biondi to match Mark Spitz's feat of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, but Biondi himself was skeptical.

In his first event, the 200-meter freestyle, Biondi took bronze, losing out to a new world record, but beating the previous record holder. Biondi felt it was a very good performance in his weakest event, though he was angered by the media coverage, which stressed that he would "fail" to match Spitz's record of seven golds.

Biondi took silver in his second competition, the 100-meter butterfly, where he was out-touched at the wall by one one-hundredth of a second. Biondi spoke of his disappointment: "I had been winning the race easily the whole way. It's been eating me up." He translated that frustration into his swimming, reeling off five consecutive gold medals to close the games: in the 4 × 200-meter freestyle relay, the 100-meter freestyle, the 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay, the 50-meter freestyle, and the medley relay. In the end, he reached his goal of seven Olympic medals—five gold, one silver, and one bronze.

Despite his success, the pressure of the spotlight increasingly wore on Biondi, and he sought other outlets beyond swimming. In 1989, building on a lifelong interest in marine biology, he cofounded the Delphys Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports marine mammal research and education. He kept a diary for Sports Illustrated at the 1988 Olympics in which he confided: "If things work out here, and I end up becoming some kind of Olympic star, I'd like to use that platform to talk about how we're destroying our oceans and environment." He made good on that promise, and ultimately graduated from Berkeley with a degree in natural resource conservation.

After the 1992 Olympics, Biondi retired from competitive swimming. He had won another three medals for a total of eleven, but was ready to get on with the rest of his life. In 1995 he married Kirsten Metzger, a former Berkeley swimmer, and embarked on a tour of public appearances and lectures. He found it lucrative but felt that his life "was getting too soft." The couple moved to Portland, Oregon, and Biondi enrolled in a master's degree program in education at Lewis and Clark College. He completed the degree and began teaching social studies in Oregon schools. Their son was born in 1999.

Biondi combined talent and technique to become the greatest freestyle swimmer of all time. The American records he set in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle in 1988 still stood at the end of the twentieth century. Yet he shunned the spotlight and always sought balance in his life. He remains critical of intensive youth swimming programs. "At a meet in Salinas," Biondi recounted for Life in 1988, "a man came up to me and said, 'My boy holds a 1,000 yard free-style record for eight-year-olds.' Instead of pounding 15,000 meters a day—which is as much as I swim—that kid should be exploring what's out there. Sure he'll be a national record holder, but he'll burn out. What is that going to teach him?"

There is no formal biography of Biondi, nor is there much in the way of a literature of swimming, especially in comparison to track and field or cycling. The best place to read more about Biondi is in the back issues of Sports Illustrated, where he and his exploits were profiled on a regular basis between 1985 and 1992.

Timothy Kringen