Matt Biondi is one of the greatest competitive swimmers in history. Over the course of his career, he earned dozens of national, international, and collegiate titles and set twelve world records. He reached his zenith at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, where he won seven medals to tie the record set by swimming legend Mark Spitz in 1972. Biondi, Spitz, and shooter Carl Osburn are the only U.S. athletes to win eleven Olympic medals overall. Biondi also was the first swimmer ever to win seven medals at a World Championship tournament, and he and Tom Jager were the first American swimmers to capture gold in three Olympiads. While attending the University of California—Berkeley, Biondi became the first swimmer in more than a half-century to sweep the 50, 100, and 200-yard freestyle races in the NCAA Championships. He repeated the feat a year later—another first. "He has the ability to feel the water, much like an artist feels the canvas and a pianist feels the keys," said Nort Thornton, Biondi's coach at UC Berkeley. "Those are things you just don't teach people."
Biondi is a product of the San Francisco area—born in Palo Alto, raised in the town of Moraga, an alumni of the University of California-Berkeley. In high school, he was so skinny he was called Spiderman and derided on the basketball court. As a result, he turned to the pool at age 15—much later than most serious competitive swimmers. "I took practice very seriously," Biondi has said. "I was always conscious of every lap and every
stroke. I was thinking about what I was doing and about how I could make it better."
Hard work and natural ability combined to make Biondi one of the greatest swimmers ever at Berkeley, where he was a four-time All-American in both swimming and water polo, NCAA Swimmer of the Year three times in row, and a member of three NCAA Champion water polo squads. In 1985, Biondi was the NCAA Champion in two individual and two team events—the 100 and 200-yard freestyle races and the 4×100 yard and 4×200 yard freestyle relays. In 1986, he won those again and added the 50-yard freestyle crown—to become the first swimmer in fifty-six years to capture the 50, 100 and 200-yard freestyle championships in the same year. In 1987, he became the first person ever to repeat the feat two years in a row.
Biondi won the first of his eight Olympic gold medals as an eighteen-year-old novice on the United States' 4×100 meter freestyle relay team at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Two years later, he was dominating the collegiate swimming world—with five NCAA championships—and exploding onto the international stage. In Madrid, Spain, in 1986, Biondi became the first swimmer ever to win seven medals at the World Championships. This unprecedented accomplishment would create intense pressure at the 1988 Olympics, however, where Biondi was expected to match the seven gold medals claimed by legendary U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz sixteen years earlier.
Biondi alluded to the pressure—and tried to temper expectations—in a journal he kept for Sports Illustrated during the '88 Olympiad. "Everyone will be counting the medals and the times and the world records, and making this big judgment: Is Matt a success or a failure?" Biondi wrote. "It seems there's so much emphasis put on that stuff and so little on how a person grows as he works his way toward the Olympics. To me, it's the path getting there that counts, not the cheese at the end of the maze…. People don't seem to realize that I'm coming here with only one world record, in the 100 free. Spitz had world records in all of his individual events going into the 1972 Olympics. And mostly he was swimming against just Americans. Nowadays you've got East and West Germans, Swedes, Australians, Soviets—and they're all great. Times have changed."
The '88 Games
The 1988 Olympics started with a bump for Biondi, when he finished third in the 200-meter freestyle behind Anders Holmertz of Sweden and Duncan Armstrong of Australia. Biondi chafed at a news coverage depicting his performance as disappointing. "The press always throws stuff at you," he wrote in his Sports Illustrated diary. "Like tonight I heard (NBC commentator) Bob Costas say on TV, 'Matt Biondi isn't going to win his seven gold medals. Today he had to settle for bronze.' But I feel good about the bronze. My most difficult event is over and I still have a chance to walk away with seven medals. I think that would be a hell of a performance."
Two days later, Biondi won the silver medal in the 100 meter butterfly, one-hundredth of a second behind Anthony Nesty of Suriname. He also captured gold and helped set a world record time in the 4×200 freestyle relay. Four more gold medals followed—in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 4×100 freestyle relay, and the 4×100 medley relay. Biondi ended the Games with five gold medals, one silver, and one bronze and set or contributed to four world records. He defeated his friend and rival Tom Jager in the 50-meter freestyle for the first time in two years and broke Jager's record time in the event.
In and Out of Retirement
Biondi announced his retirement from competitive swimming in 1988 and went to work on the "celebrity circuit," giving motivational speeches in as many as twenty cities a month, endorsing swimsuits and sunglasses, opening supermarkets, giving instructional clinics. He and Jager competed in a series of lucrative exhibition races. Biondi generated a six-figure income, but it was a difficult existence for someone who is shy and protective of his privacy.
At the same time, limitations were relaxed on payments amateur athletes could receive from endorsement and from their national federations, and U.S. Swimming increased its stipends to potential Olympians. This made it viable for Biondi and other veteran swimmers to compete in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain. The United States fielded its oldest Olympic swim team in history. Biondi, 26, and Jager, 27, would become the first American swimmers to win gold medals in three Olympiads and Biondi would become one of the most decorated U.S. Olympic athletes in history. Biondi captured gold medals in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay and the 4×100 meter medley relay and a silver in the 50-meter freestyle. He did not swim in the 4×100 medley relay final, but alternates share in the award if they compete in qualifying heats. The event gave Biondi the 11th medal of his Olympic career, tying the U.S. record shared by Spitz and Osburn.
Out of the Pool
Biondi had lost his trademark competitive zeal even before the Barcelona Olympics. "I can't tell you how many mornings I got to the pool and stood over the cold water and just had to force myself to drop in," he told Sports Illustrated. Biondi "was thrilled with his achievements, but the intense push toward medals and records had worn on him," Portland Oregonian reporter Katy Muldoon wrote in a feature story in 2000. "And even though he sometimes sought it out, he says, the spotlight traumatized him. Shy by nature, Biondi found the near-constant attention from the news media and the public emotionally difficult."
Biondi met Kirsten Metzger after the '92 Games at a University of California football game where he and other Cal Olympians were honored during a halftime ceremony. A few months later, they bumped into each other on the street in Berkeley. Two years later, they married in Hawaii, Kirsten's home state. The couple lived in northern California and Biondi, who had returned to the motivational speaking circuit, was drifting and directionless. "He would cross-country ski in winter and spend long summer afternoons sailing on San Francisco Bay with his father," Muldoon wrote. Biondi told her that he "felt like life was getting too easy, too soft. I had my speech down. I could make ends meet by working once a month."
Biondi's wife convinced him to return to college. He enrolled at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, where Kirsten had earned a graduate degree in public administration, and graduated with a master's degree in teaching in 2000. "I want to make a difference by being in a profession where I can spend a lot of time with kids," Biondi said. "And I would like to work with one group all yearnot just come in … traveling around with my gold medals, all sensational."
|1965||Born October 8 in Palo Alto, California|
|1984||Earns Olympic gold medal|
|1985||Named American Swimmer of the Year and nominated for the Sullivan Award, which goes to America's outstanding amateur athlete|
|1986||Becomes first swimmer ever to win seven medals at the World Championships|
|1987||Graduates from University of California—Berkeley, where he was four-time All-American in both swimming and water polo, played on three NCAA Champion water polo teams, and was NCAA Swimmer of the Year three years in a row|
|1988||Wins seven Olympic medals, tying record set by Mark Spitz in 1972|
|1990||Wins five medals at Goodwill Games|
|1991||Wins four medals at World Championships|
|1992||Wins three more Olympic medals and ties Spitz and shooter Carl Osburn with total of 11|
|1994||Donates Olympic medals—eight gold, two silver, one bronze—to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago|
|1995||Marries Kirsten Metzger in Hawaii, her home state|
|1998||First son, Nathaniel, is born|
|2000||Earns master's degree in education from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon|
|2001||Begins teaching high school math in Hawaii|
|2002||Second son, Lucas, is born|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1983||Member of NCAA Champion water polo team|
|1984||All-American in swimming and water polo; member of NCAA Champion water polo team|
|1984||Gold medal (4×100 meter freestyle relay), Olympic Games, Los Angeles|
|1985||NCAA Swimmer of the Year; American Swimmer of the Year; All-American in swimming and water polo|
|1985||NCAA champion in 100 yard freestyle, 200 yard freestyle, 4×100 yard freestyle relay, 4×200 yard freestyle relay|
|1986||U.S. Olympic Committee Male Athlete of the Year; NCAA Swimmer of the Year; All-American in swimming and water polo|
|1986||NCAA champion in 50 yard freestyle, 100 yard freestyle, 200 yard freestyle, 4×100 yard freestyle relay, 4×200 yard freestyle relay|
|1986||Three gold medals (100 meter freestyle, 4×100 meter freestyle relay, 4×100 meter medley relay), one silver medal (100 meter butterfly); and three bronze medals (50 meter freestyle, 200 meter freestyle, 4×200 meter freestyle relay), World Championships, Madrid, Spain|
|1987||NCAA Swimmer of the Year; All-American in swimming and water polo; member of NCAA Champion water polo team|
|1987||NCAA champion in 50 yard freestyle, 100 yard freestyle, 200 yard freestyle, 4×100 yard freestyle relay|
|1988||U.S. Olympic Committee Male Athlete of the Year|
|1988||Five gold medals (50 meter freestyle, 100 meter freestyle, 4×100 meter freestyle relay, 4×200 freestyle relay, 4×100 medley relay), one silver medal (100 meter butterfly), and one bronze medal (200 meter freestyle), Olympic Games, Seoul, South Korea|
|1990||Four gold medals (50 meter freestyle, 100 meter freestyle, 4×100 meter freestyle relay, 4×100 meter medley relay) and one silver (100 meter butterfly), Goodwill Games, Seattle|
|1991||Three gold medals (100 meter freestyle, 4×100 meter freestyle relay, 4×100 meter medley relay) and one silver medal (50 meter freestyle), World Championships, Perth, Australia|
|1992||Two gold medals (4×100 meter freestyle relay, 4×100 meter medley relay) and one silver medal (50 meter freestyle), Olympic Games, Barcelona, Spain|
Address: Office, USA Swimming, One Olympic Plaza, Colorado Springs, CO, 80909.
Where Is He Now?
Since the fall of 2001, Matt Biondi has taught high school math at Parker School in Kamuela, Hawaii. "Instead of addressing adulatory fans on the rubber-chicken circuit, Biondi stands before a room of sarcastic teenagers—and he loves it," Sports Illustrated reported. Biondi lives with his wife and two sons in a small house and bicycles a quarter-mile to work. The man who once said his grueling competitive career left him "scarred for swimming," continues to distance himself from his past. "When he had two job offers from Hawaii private schools," Sports Illustrated said, "he chose the school that didn't have a swim team."
Bailey, Sandra. "Treading Water and Juggling Jobs." The New York Times (August 1, 1992).
Biondi, Matt. "Diary of a Champion." Sports Illustrated (October 3, 1988).
Litsky, Frank. "The Duel in the Pool Goes to Biondi." The New York Times (March 6, 1992).
Litsky, Frank. "Biondi Stays in Form Despite a Busy Agenda." The New York Times (March 23, 1990).
Litsky, Frank. "Otto Takes 6th Gold; One More for Biondi." The New York Times (September 26, 1988).
Litsky, Frank. "Biondi On Course with Butterfly Victory." The New York Times (August 10, 1988).
Litsky, Frank. "Biondi is Learning to Set his Pace." The New York Times (March 25, 1988).
Litsky, Frank. "Biondi is Trying to do Better than his World-Record Year." The New York Times (April 6, 1986).
Litsky, Frank. "Biondi, Jager Better Olympians' Marks." The New York Times (March 30, 1985).
Montville, Leigh. "Silver Threads Among the Gold." Sports Illustrated (July 22, 1992).
Muldoon, Katy. "Out of the Pool, and Out of the Spotlight." Sunday Oregonian (April 9, 2000).
"Out of Retirement and Into Careerism." Time (July 27, 1992).
Syken, Bill. "Catching Up With Matt Biondi, Swimmer." Sports Illustrated (October 28, 2002).
Sketch by David Wilkins