Last Saturday night, a 6'6", 200-pound torpedo named Matt Biondi launched himself into the pool at the Austin (Texas) Swimming Center for the 100-yard freestyle race. The crowd on this last night of the three-day NCAA Swimming and Diving championships had looked forward to the race with mounting excitement; they weren't disappointed. Biondi left the competition in his wake as he set an American record of 41.87, the fourth American mark set by the University of California sophomore in the 25-yard pool. Stanford's Pablo Morales, who set his fourth American record in the 200 fly a few minutes later, said of Biondi's 100, "I don't think there's ever been a performance like that in the freestyle. It's quite amazing."
The 100 was only one of Biondi's amazing feats. He began shooting down records the first afternoon of the meet when, in the 50-yard free, he broke Robin Leamy's American mark with a 19.32 in the prelims, then bettered that time by .01 a few hours later in the finals. However, UCLA had a torpedo of its own in the 50 final, 6'3" Tom Jager, who edged Biondi by a finger length to set a new, new record of 19.24.
On Friday night Biondi came back to win the 200-yard free in 1:33.22, topping Rowdy Gaines's 1981 American record by .58. "I decided to use this meet to try and break into the top echelon of the swim world," Biondi said later. "Maybe with my record in the 200 today, people will think of me as a middle-distance swimmer as well." Not to be outdone, Jager then smashed Rick Carey's mark in the 100 back with a 48.21.
So when it was time for Saturday's 100 free, the atmosphere in the swim center was highly charged. Biondi and Jager, friends who roomed together at the L.A. Olympics, would battle stroke for stroke to see who was the fastest swimmer in America. As in the 50, they were in adjoining lanes. Biondi had already lowered the 100 record in the prelims, and when Texas coach Eddie Reese was asked who he thought would win, he said, "Jager has good speed, but if I had to put money on it, I'd bet on Biondi."
The crowd was on its feet as the field of eight hit the water. Biondi and Jager started off fairly evenly, but Jager missed the second turn, and when the leaders came off the third turn, Biondi blew by Jager so fast that the UCLA junior must have heard the wind howling in his ears. Biondi's margin of victory was 1.63 over Texas's Mike Ellison as Jager faded to third. The winner wasn't through for the evening. "I have one more race to go," Biondi said after the 100. "One more stroke of icing to put on the cake."
With that, he anchored Cal's 800-free relay team, overtaking Florida's Mike Heath in the last 15 yards to win. It wasn't enough to give Cal the NCAA team title—rival Stanford was the champion—but it did give the Golden Bears fourth place.
For Biondi the NCAAs were the highlight of a 15-year career that began when he took up swimming at the age of five in the Moraga Valley (Calif.) pool. Cal coach Nort Thornton was unimpressed the first time he saw Biondi, then an 11-year-old, swim at a county meet. "He was talented," says Thornton, "but too skinny." How skinny? "I was so skinny," says Biondi, "that when I was 16, my driver's license read 6'1", 135 pounds. My basketball coach used to tell me I disappeared when I turned sideways."
But, my, how he's grown. In 1983 Thornton saw a very different Matt Biondi swim for Campolindo High. Says Thornton, "I saw a guy dive into the pool and swim a warmup lap for a freestyle event, and I just couldn't believe it. After I got a closer look, and saw he was that good, I actively started recruiting him."
As a freshman at Cal, Biondi made last summer's Olympic team and swam the third leg on the U.S.'s gold medal-winning 400-meter free relay squad. The anchor was Gaines. Biondi has always admired former Auburn star Gaines and another sprint hero, UCLA grad Leamy. When the two were on covers of Swimming World magazine, Biondi tacked the pictures to his wall. "They were my role models," he says. Both Gaines and Leamy have now retired from competition, but they were in Austin to watch Biondi break their records.
Biondi has also been on Cal's NCAA water polo championship team the last two years. "Matt has a great feel for the water," says Thornton. "He's buoyant and he's got size and big hands and feet [size 14]. He's got a lot of things going for him."
Among the things going for him at Austin was an almost bald head. The day before the start of the NCAAs, Biondi had shaved his head, even though he once promised his mother, Lucille, he never would. "Mom's always had a thing about shaved heads," he said. "She didn't want me to do it because she felt I'd lose my individuality." Matt finally called his mother on Friday night and confessed, but only because he had remembered, too late, that his sister Ann Marie is getting married in three weeks and he's supposed to be in the wedding party. There was no hope of hiding at school until it grew back.
Biondi aside, Stanford was a surprising winner in the team competition. The Cardinal hadn't won the NCAAs since 1967, and when someone suggested that his team might have a shot at the title, coach Skip Kenney merely shook his head and muttered, "Nah."
But behind the brilliant swimming of Morales, John Moffet (who won the 100 and 200 breaststrokes), Jeff Kostoff (who set an American record in the 400 IM) and team captain Dave Bottom (who swam the leadoff leg on the 400-medley relay team, which broke two American records), Stanford accumulated 403.5 points, 74.5 more than defending champion Florida.
It was clear on Friday night that—barring total disaster—Stanford had the championship locked up. At 4 a.m. Saturday, Kenney's wife, Debbie, was awakened by a noise in their motel room. "I looked over," she said, "and there was Skip, sitting on the edge of the bed, sobbing. I got up and we must have talked for two hours, about all the people who would be so happy we had won."
"This is the highlight of my coaching career," Kenney said that night. "I just can't explain the inner glow I feel right now." Then he picked up the championship plaque and kissed it.