Until you hear the story about his parents' backyard, you might just think that 20-year-old Matthew Nicholas Biondi, all 6'6¼" of him, hazel-eyed and handsome and gracious and gold-medal-winning, has lived a life of complete and utter perfection. There have been no missteps—or should we say mis-splashes?—for Biondi is the world's foremost sprint freestyle swimmer. His is a world out of Spielberg, replete with ideal family, ranch house, well-scrubbed California suburb—everything but poltergeists rattling the closets.
Those, in a sense, are in the backyard. Matt, then 14, let a match slip one day when he was setting off some fireworks behind the Biondi house in Moraga, Calif., with his cousins and younger brother. In a moment the dry grass in the yard was ablaze. A wind kicked up, fanning the flames. The youngsters tried to drag over a garden hose but the coupling pulled apart. Matt stomped at the grass with his feet, sustaining a burn on his right shin that left a slight scar.
Biondi ran to the house to tell his mother, Lucille, who called the fire department and instructed Matt to run up the hill to warn neighbors that their homes might be in jeopardy. But the fire engines arrived in time and the blaze was put out. The fire captain gave Matt a stern lecture and told all the boys that if they were ever involved in any other trouble, this incident would be brought up and put on a police record.
"It put a good scare in Matt," recalls Lucille Biondi. "The only punishment I could think of after that was that he tell his dad." After Matt did that, Nick Biondi forbade his son, then a promising swimmer, to get into a pool for a week.
June 22, 1986
Biondi learned lessons from the backyard fire: Be careful, remember that you can be burned, and only display fireworks by—or in—the water. Those lessons have served him well.
Biondi, now a senior-to-be at Cal, is arguably the fastest swimmer alive. He holds the world record (48.95 seconds) in the 100-meter freestyle—the sport's glamour sprint event—as well as the American record in the 200 freestyle (1:47.89), in which he is just a tick behind West Germany's formidable world-record holder (1:47.44), 6'7½" Michael Gross.
Even though Biondi didn't begin training year-round until he was, for swimming, a relatively old 15, he already has an Olympic gold medal. He won the last spot on the U.S. 400-free relay team in 1984—"Matt who?" asked Rowdy Gaines when told the name of his relay teammate—and then turned in a powerful third leg in Los Angeles. Matt who, indeed. Swim mavens compare it to the first sighting of a comet.
A big, bright comet. "Yacht builders and shipbuilders have a key that the length of the keel determines the speed potential of the boat," says Nort Thornton, Biondi's coach at Berkeley. "It's also true for swimmers. The swimmer's keel is his side. And a person who has a great span from fingertips to toes—a person like Matt or Gross—has a tremendous advantage over a more normal person who has only two thirds or three quarters of that length."
Biondi has size 14 feet and a 6-foot, 7½-inch wingspan (Gross has a 7-foot-plus wingspan) to propel him through the water, and his kick is extraordinarily strong. But there's more than that—an element of grace. "Matt has a rare feel for the water," says Thornton. "It's the same feel a musician has for his instrument or a painter for his brush. They all have an affinity for their medium."
Olympic hero and ABC swimming commentator Mark Spitz says that for efficiency and smoothness, Biondi's stroke reminds him of his own. "And," says Spitz, "I've never seen anyone's before that I thought was close to mine, whatever that means."
It means that Biondi is the swimmer to watch, whether at next week's U.S. world championship team trials in Orlando, Fla., or at the world championships in August in Madrid, where Biondi could win six gold medals and engage in a classic battle with Gross in the 200. If Gross is the veteran albatross, Biondi is the young California condor, waiting to swoop.
This summer, Biondi will become the world's fastest swimmer, period, if he can briefly downshift from his 100s and 200s into the 50 free, which may be added to the Olympic schedule in 1988 and will make its official championship debut at Madrid. There is a world record for the event, held by UCLA's Tom Jager, who until this spring would have seemed the favorite. But Biondi whipped Jager over 50 yards at the NCAA meet in April, establishing a U.S. short-course mark in the process. You want to test yourself against Biondi? Just try to swim two lengths of a 25-yard pool in 19.22 seconds, as Biondi did in the NCAA finals this year.
In 1985 Biondi was unquestionably the world's premier male swimmer, clocking the three fastest 100-meter free-styles in history and anchoring a world-record 400-free relay with a searing 47.66 split that all but whooshed him through a time warp, like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. "I don't think there are limits to how fast anybody can go," Biondi says confidently.
Matt, it seems, always leaves just a little more to pare off. Before the 1985 NCAAs in Austin, Texas, for example, he shaved most of his hair to reduce drag, although his mother had implored him not to. Biondi was left with a fine, shadowy patina of hair on his scalp that gave it a metallic blue sheen. The color nicely complemented both Biondi's navy Cal suit and the glistening water of the 25-yard University of Texas pool, through which he swam to four American short-course marks—he broke every sprint freestyle record at least once—and two titles, in the 100 and 200 frees.
Biondi's performance at that meet was so astonishing that jaws all but hit the pool deck. He had lopped off records with hedge clippers, chopping half a second each from Gaines's 100 and 200 marks. "I told him, 'You're going to be the next role model of United States swimming—someone who can lead,' " said an awed Gaines afterward. And, in fact, at this year's NCAA championships Biondi was even more dominant, winning all three sprint freestyles, something no one had done since 1930.
It is at this point in the script that the Spielberg demons are supposed to appear and terrorize Biondi and his suburban neighborhood. Look around and you don't see any—even the brush grew back in the yard. But in Biondi's mind, they are creeping in. The demons are pressure and fame.
On a sodden afternoon, Biondi is walking across the Cal campus, happy and unrecognized. This is how it used to be everywhere for him, before squealing girls and reporters and the title of world-record holder came into his life.
"I remember when I was training last year," he is saying, his long strides making it difficult for the visitor to keep up. "It compared a lot to the movie Rocky. You know, in the beginning he's such a basic person. He sleeps in this old bed. his alarm clock goes off really early in the morning. Well, that's what it was like for me last year. There was no pressure on me at all. The drive to do really well was within myself."
Biondi is self-contained, rational, not one to spill too much emotion. He shows qualities of each parent: Nick Biondi is an animated, gently pleasant man, a bearlike ex-football player and swim coach who works in life insurance; Matt's mother is quiet, reserved and methodical. "It's really a stable family," says Stu Kahn, Matt's longtime age-group and high school coach.
Nick Biondi roomed with 49ers coach Bill Walsh when the two were in a master's program together at San Jose State, and he was also a classmate of Thornton's. Walsh keeps close tabs on Matt's career. After Biondi set a national high school record in the 50-yard free, he sent the swimmer a hand-tooled leather wallet, as a birthday gift, with an inscription acknowledging Matt's accomplishment.
The Biondis always stressed to all three of their children (Ann Marie, the eldest, is married; Mike, the youngest, is a Cal sophomore who swims for the Golden Bear B squad) that sports should be fun. Matt took up swimming at five only for recreation. Although he sprouted up tall and skinny—to 6'1" and 135 pounds by age 16—and continued to do well when he competed, he gave most of his attention to school work, chorus and other sports. Kahn kept the swimming low-pressure, though he saw great potential. "Kids like Matt are basically born, not made," he told Swimming World last year. "He had a strong kick even when he was a 10-year-old, whereas most age groupers are pullers. It was obvious he could handle any freestyle distance."
There were times when Kahn couldn't hide his enthusiasm. "When I was 12 years old, he [Kahn] said at a banquet, 'One day this kid is going to be comparable to John Naber,' " recalls Biondi. "At the time I thought, you know, that's a lot."
As he neared graduation from Moraga's Campolindo High, Biondi was heavily recruited by West Coast schools, including UCLA and Cal. He also went to visit Nebraska and received feelers from several Eastern colleges. Biondi decided to go to Cal in order to pursue both swimming and water polo.
"What he needed was power, so we put him on a weight and speed program," says Thornton. Biondi has grown 1¾ inches and added 30 pounds since he started at Cal. He has kept himself mentally fresh—and has honed his raw sprinting talents—by playing water polo in the fall. He has played on two national championship teams and earned All-America honors three years in a row. He may, in fact, try for the 1992 Olympic water polo team.
Biondi climbs into a visitor's car for a drive to the huge old house in Berkeley he shares with 11 swimmers and three other students. His life on campus is a busy one: He maintains a 3.0 GPA in his studies in P.E.I.S. (Political Economies of Industrial Science), swims about four hours a day, works out frequently with weights and spends as much time as he can with Cal swimmer Loretta Soffe, a junior who is Biondi's girlfriend. He also "hashes" (washes dishes) at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority in exchange for meals. "I get a balanced meal, which I probably wouldn't get if I had to make it myself," he says. "I can just go up there, eat, do my job and I'm out of there." Ever the competitor, Biondi claims a personal record for the shortest time needed for loading and washing.
His housemates know all too much about Biondi's record-making ability. "Most of them were freshmen," he says. "At the beginning of the year I played water polo, and I was on a completely different schedule from them, so I didn't really get to know them. By the second semester when I started to join in on everything...." He pauses. "They'd never say hi to me. If I'd say hi to them, then they'd talk. The freshmen feel...they feel scared to talk to me. They feel intimidated, which is sad."
Arriving at the house, the visitor finds Biondi's new half-ton Chevy pickup parked in back. Biondi pats it lovingly and points out the vanity plates: SWIMATT. Do not doubt for a moment that Biondi is proud of what he has achieved. Proud, but burdened. Life used to be so simple.
"Remember Rocky III?" he asks, picking up on his earlier thought. "By that movie he's training and he's got about 150 people watching him, and girls come up and kiss him on the cheek and he's selling T-shirts and everything like that. That's what you can't let yourself get into. This year I still have the pressure within to do well, but unfortunately there's a lot of pressure everywhere else, and that's really changed the game."
The game has changed, but Biondi hasn't lost his perspective. He knows he has had a comfortable life and that his success is likely to continue. "I guess I've been fortunate in never having to worry about setting goals for myself," he says. "They always seem to be strummed up in the back of my head and then sort of pop out in front of me."
Thornton says he's "afraid to speculate" as to just how fast Biondi might someday swim. "I don't want to limit him," he says. "Matt's already proved to me that he can do things that I didn't think were possible. My main responsibility now is to stay out of his way."
Biondi has his own way of staying out of the way; he likes to daydream. "I always dream in the future," he says. "I think about the Olympics a lot, mostly when I'm walking between classes or home from swim practice. I run through a race in my mind, as if it's really happening. In that respect, I'm a dreamer. I'm like a little kid who thinks about being an astronaut and going to the moon."