MATT BIONDI WAS WALKING BACK to his house in Berkeley, Calif., two
years ago when he saw a distinctive figure standing outside the front
door. ''I said, 'Wow, who's that real tall guy?' '' the 6 ft. 6 in.
Biondi recalls. To his surprise, it was none other than Michael
Gross, the 6 ft. 7 in. West German Olympic champion, who was
vacationing in California and needed a room for the night. ''He just
showed up,'' says Biondi.
The two rivals didn't know each other very well, but they
proceeded to share an enjoyable evening of conversation about their
world records, world titles and philosophies of swimming. Biondi put
Gross up for the night, and a friendship was born. ''It's really nice
to reflect with someone who's had the same experiences you've had,''
says Biondi, who will meet his pal again in at least two individual
events -- the 200-meter freestyle and the 100 butterfly -- and three
relays in Seoul. Their races should be among the Games' swimming
Gross, 24, will defend his Olympic titles in the 200 free and 100
fly and will be a force in the 200 fly, in which he won the silver in
'84 and currently holds the world record. The event he most wants to
win, however, is the 4 X 200 free relay in which he will probably
swim the anchor leg against Biondi. Four years ago Bruce Hayes of the
U.S. held off Gross's scorching 1:46.89 anchor swim to win by an
eyelash in the most electrifying race of the L.A. Games. Since then,
West German swimmers have lowered the world record by more than two
seconds, to 7:13.10, and have vowed to hand the U.S. its first
Olympic defeat in the event since 1956. ''This is the only thing
missing in my record of successes,'' Gross says.
Biondi, meanwhile, hopes to become the first swimmer since Mark
Spitz to win seven medals. Not seven gold medals, which Spitz amassed
in 1972 -- Biondi calls such a haul ''outrageously impossible'' --
but seven of one color or another. And he may do it. He is the
overwhelming favorite in the 100 free, his world-record event, and he
has the year's fastest time by more than half a second in the 100
fly. He's second only to countryman Tom Jager in the 50 free, boasts
the year's No. 2 clocking behind Gross in the 200 free and will swim
on three superb U.S. relay teams.
Actually, seven golds is not an impossibility. But to win that
many Biondi would have to outdo even Spitz, because the rest of the
world has improved dramatically in swimming over the past 16 years.
Besides Gross, Biondi must face such bona fide challengers as Andrew
Jameson of Great Britain in the 100 fly, and a rugged 200-free field
that includes Giorgio Lamberti of Italy and Artur Wojdat of Poland.
The 6 ft. 6 in. Wojdat, 20, who has trained in Mission Viejo, Calif.,
for two of the past three years, smashed Gross's 400-free world
record in March to become the first Polish swimmer to hold a world
mark in 35 years.
Other men's highlights in Seoul: the individual medley showdown
between David Wharton of the U.S. and Tamas Darnyi of Hungary and the
100-back duel between submarine-style world-record holder David
Berkoff of the U.S. and the Soviet whose mark he eclipsed, Igor
Polyansky. The 200 breast will match Josef Szabo of Hungary and Mike
Barrowman of the U.S. Both swimmers use a new, rolling technique
taught to them by the same Hungarian coach, Jozsef Nagy. In the 1,500
free, Soviet legend Vladimir Salnikov, 28 and in his twilight, will
have a hard time keeping up with Rainer Henkel of West Germany and
Uwe Dassler of the G.D.R.
The women's competition will center on the battle between Janet
Evans, the world-record holder in the 400 and 800 frees and the
U.S.'s main hope in the 400 IM, and the dominating, altitude-trained
East Germans, who won 13 of 16 women's events at the 1986 world
championships in Madrid. Evans will meet G.D.R. stars at every turn,
including freestylers Heike Friedrich, 18, winner of four gold medals
at last year's European Championships, and Anke Mohring, 19, who in
August '87 took away Evans's 800 world record and held it for seven
The brightest of the East German talents could be Kristin Otto,
22, who won four gold and two silver medals at the '86 worlds. Otto
could win the 100 back, 100 fly and 100 free.
Other countries will play a role, too. Romania will bring
strapping Tamara Costache, the 50-free world champion, as well as
200-butterflyer Stela Pura and 200- and 400-freestyler Noemi Lung,
who may pressure Evans. Yang Wenyi, 16, of China will try to prove
that her 50-free world record, set in April in Guangzhou, China, is
for real, while countrywoman Huang Xiaomin and Silke Horner of the
G.D.R. will be chasing 15-year-old breaststroker Allison Higson of
Canada, the native country of the top U.S. breaststroker, Tracey
McFarlane (pages 128-129), who made the U.S. team four months after
being naturalized as a citizen. In May, Higson snatched the world
200-breast record away from Horner, the world-record holder in the
Mary T. Meagher, the grande dame of the butterfly, will try to
hold off Pura and Birte Weigang of the G.D.R. in the 200, and
Weigang, Otto and Angel Myers of the U.S. in the 100. Myers, 21, is
also a potential medalist in the 50 and 100 frees.
U.S. coach Richard Quick predicts that the Americans will win more
gold and total medals in swimming than any other nation, including
the G.D.R. The Yanks certainly won't come close to the 20 golds they
earned in their home pool at L.A., but there's no shame in that.
Remember, most of the world is covered with water -- and, nowadays,
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue