Between Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps there was Matt Biondi.
The first to swim the 100-meter freestyle in under 49 seconds, Biondi set 12 world records. He captured 11 medals [eight gold, two silver, one bronze] over three Olympic Games, matching Spitz and later eclipsed by Phelps. Biondi won seven medals in Seoul in 1988, becoming only the second athlete [after Spitz] to earn seven podium finishes in a single Olympics.
Biondi competed at the World Championships in 1986 and 1991, winning six gold medals. At the 1986 worlds, he captured a record seven medals, a feat later matched by Phelps.
The most decorated athlete at the Seoul Olympics, Biondi set the ten fastest freestyle times in the world at 100 meters in 1988. He won 17 U.S. national championships, was a finalist for the 1988 Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in America, and is a two-time Swimming World Male Swimmer of the World.
Dubbed the California Condor for his massive wingspan, the 6’6”, 210-pound Biondi competed in three Pan Pacific Games, winning 18 medals – 13 of them gold. He excelled in two strokes, freestyle and butterfly, and across three distances [50, 100 and 200 meters].
Born in Moraga, California – in the East Bay area of San Francisco – October 8, 1965, Matthew Nicolas Biondi started swimming at five. His first race, a 25 yard swim, did not go well, as Biondi false-started twice and lost his swim suit on the dive.
Although he played football, basketball and soccer, Biondi gravitated to water polo, a sport his swim coach/father excelled in and taught his son to play at ten.
At Campolindo High School, Biondi swam and played water polo. After growing three inches and putting on 35 pounds between his sophomore and senior years, he became the top schoolboy sprinter in America, setting a national high school record of 20.40 in the 50-yard freestyle.
In 1983, the California Condor decided to stay home and accepted a scholarship to Cal – about a dozen miles down the road — to swim and play water polo. Under the tutelage of the legendary Peter Cutino, Biondi helped the Bears to three NCAA water polo titles between 1983 and 1986.
Biondi had an exceptional swim career at Cal, winning 13 NCAA championships. A three-time collegiate Swimmer-of-the-Year, Biondi became the first swimmer to win NCAA titles in the 50, 100 and 200-yard freestyle events since Al Schwartz of Northwestern accomplished the trifecta in 1930.
In the summer after his freshman year, 18-year-old Matt Biondi shocked the swimming world by earning the last spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. At the Los Angeles Games, Biondi was part of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay team that won the gold medal and set a new world record of 3:19.03.
Four years later in Seoul, Biondi earned five gold medals while setting three world and one Olympic record. The swim he remembers most, however, was the one that got away.
In the finals of the 100-meter butterfly, Biondi led comfortably approaching the finish. With one meter to go, he was faced with the classic swimmer’s dilemma — to finish on half a stroke or glide in.
Biondi chose the latter, and was out-touched by Surinam’s Anthony Nesty, swimming two lanes above. The Condor claimed silver by one one-hundredth of a second.
With size 14 feet and a wingspan greater than his height, Biondi was a sprinter with a unique combination of size and flawless mechanics. What set him apart was his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when the stakes were highest.
“Matt has all the right tools,” said long-time Cal swim coach Nort Thorton. “He has the same feel for the water that a pianist has for the keys or an artist’s brush has for the canvas.”
Married and a father of three, Biondi earned a master’s degree from Lewis and Clark College in 2000. His eldest son, Nate, is following in his footsteps, and is currently a freestyle sprinter at Cal.
One of the greatest sprinters in history, Mr. Biondi was named UPI and U.S. Olympic Committee Sportsman of the Year. Now a math teacher and swim coach, Biondi is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.