America's latest swimming prodigy stretched the kinks out of his 6'6" frame last Wednesday night at the Mission Viejo, Calif. swim center, stepped to the block and looked down Lane 4 through his smoke-tinted goggles. Matt Biondi, 19, who had already set heads turning by twice breaking the 100-meter freestyle world record at the long course championships, was now attempting similar heroics in the 200-meter freestyle. "Each of you hold on to one ankle until he gets tired," John Dillon had kiddingly told his son, Duffy Dillon, who was in Lane 3, and Mike Heath, in Lane 5.
Biondi, a Cal junior little noticed until 14 months ago, when he swam on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic 400-free relay team, had broken his first world record on Tuesday in the preliminaries of the 100 freestyle, the sport's glamour event. His 49.24 clocking had trimmed .12 off Rowdy Gaines's 1981 mark. For those who missed that performance, Biondi went even faster in that night's 100 final. With the crowd chanting "Forty-eight! Forty-eight!" he smashed the 49-second barrier with a 48.95 performance, leaving his closest pursuer, Heath, more than 10 feet behind. What was as amazing as his time was the fact that Biondi, a member of Cal's NCAA-champion water polo team the last two years, didn't even start year-round swim training until 1982. Said Jonty Skinner, once the 100-free world-record holder and now coach of the San Jose Aquatic Club, "He's basically a three-year-old swimmer."
Now the 200 free finalists bent into their starting positions. The 50-meter pool lay calm, its surface mottled with late sunshine cutting through palm trees and bleachers. An electronic beep sent the swimmers off, and Biondi shot to the lead, turning the 50 at 25.01, a world-record pace. Heath, 21, the American-record holder (1:47.92) in the event, was already more than a half-second behind. "Matt's so new to this game, he doesn't have any preconceived ideas about it," Cal coach Nort Thornton said later. "He's still opening new horizons for himself."
By the 100 mark Biondi had opened a body-length lead over Heath and was more than a second ahead of the pace set by West Germany's Michael Gross in his world-record setting, gold-medal swim of 1:47.44 at the L.A. Olympics. Observers knew the danger in going out so fast even if Biondi didn't; he had swum the 200-meter free fewer than 10 times in his life. "I really don't have much confidence yet in this event," he would admit afterward.
At 150 meters, he was still .12 of a second ahead of Gross's pace. His strokes were long and smooth, evoking comparisons with the 6'7½" West German, who's a quadruple world-record holder in freestyle and butterfly events. (He lowered the 200 fly record with a 1:56.65 last week.) Gross is called the Albatross for his aquiline profile and 7-foot-plus wingspan. Biondi is more the swan, with boy-next-door good looks and a slightly smaller—6'7½"—arm spread.
As Biondi turned for home, he began to tire. "Anyone who gives 100 percent in this race is going to feel like a piano is riding his back the last 50," he said later. "That's how I felt." The world record had slipped from his grasp, but with the crowd standing, Biondi fought to the wall. The scoreboard clock froze at 1:47.89, a new U.S. record.
Heath came in at 1:48.87 and Dillon at 1:49.30. For only the second time in history, three Americans had broken 1:50. Biondi had improved his premeet personal best by nearly :05. Postrace blood-lactate tests, now routine in American swimming, suggested that Biondi can go faster—perhaps much faster.
Biondi started swimming at age five in Moraga, Calif. but took the sport casually. He grew up skinny and weak; only when he entered Cal did Thornton put him on a weight program and beef him up to his current 195. At the NCAAs in March, Biondi came away with two individual U.S. short-course records. "Right now there are no limits on him," says Thornton.
Unfortunately, Biondi's brilliance only punctuated mediocrity during much of the five-day meet. Most of last summer's U.S. Olympic stars have moved on to new careers—Steve Lundquist stopped by on Friday to say he had just signed on to the cast of Search for Tomorrow—and based on performances last week, some of their successors seem years away. Among those at Mission Viejo who could arrive sooner was a local product, Kim Brown, a 15-year-old who's 5'2" and barely 100 pounds, including a mouthful of braces. She swept the women's 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles, beating a field in the last one that included Janet Evans of Fullerton, Calif., a 13-year-old who weighs all of 75 pounds. Perhaps most impressive of the youngsters was 16-year-old Andrea Hayes of Pensacola, Fla., whose 2:12.65 clocking in the women's 200 back was the second fastest ever for an American woman.
As for Biondi, his potential is intriguing. "He's got so much power, so much ability...when he gets a little experience under his belt, he'll be awesome," said Olympic hero and ABC-TV swimming commentator Mark Spitz.
"He's just kind of finding himself as he goes along," says Thornton. As the result of last week's meet proved, it's going to be an exciting process of discovery.