Seoul Anniversary: When Matt Biondi Surged to Seven Medals at the 1988 Olympics

Matt Biondi

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Seoul Anniversary: When Matt Biondi Surged to Seven Medals at the 1988 Olympics

This week, 33 years ago, Matt Biondi took home seven medals from the Olympic Games in Seoul, an iconic performance that continues to be revered.

He had it all. The physique. The pure talent. The inner drive. Add those traits together and it is no surprise that Matt Biondi, over the span of three Olympiads, cultivated one of the finest careers the sport has seen.

Really, if a Mount Rushmore of American male legends were constructed, the first three names would be slam-dunk selections: Michael Phelps. Mark Spitz. Johnny Weissmuller. Although the final spot is slightly more complicated, it is typically handed to Biondi, with the Cal-Berkeley star getting the nod over Don Schollander, another Hall of Famer.

As Swimming World continues its Takeoff to Tokyo series, which examines some of the epic moments in Olympic history, it was easy to choose what Biondi managed at the 1988 Games in Seoul for inclusion. After all, it’s rare for an athlete to walk away from an Olympic Games with seven medals – and that is exactly what Biondi pulled off.

A SPECTACULAR RISE

Certain stories go down in the sport’s lore as entertaining tales, and Rowdy Gaines can share a doozy when it comes to Biondi. At the 1984 Olympic Trials, the meet that catapulted him to three gold medals at the Los Angeles Games, Gaines didn’t just earn his first Olympic invitation. He also received an education that can be laughed at decades later.

When Gaines scanned the results of the 100 freestyle at Trials, he stopped at the name in the fourth position. It was unfamiliar, and prompted Gaines to utter two words: “Matt Who?” Simply, Gaines had no clue about Biondi’s potential and was caught off guard by the emergence of a man he would shortly team with in Olympic-relay action.

“When I said, ‘Matt who,’ little did I know he would become one of the greatest swimmers in history,” Gaines said. “I always say I came along during a perfect time in history, post-Spitz and pre-Biondi.”

Matt Biondi – Photo Courtesy – ISHOF

Biondi might have been an unknown commodity in 1984, but that under-the-radar freedom would not last for long. Legendary coach Mark Schubert knew greatness when he saw it and immediately pegged Biondi for stardom. That status was attained the next year when Biondi collected seven medals at the 1985 Pan Pacific Championships, that haul highlighted by triumphs in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle.

A year later, at the 1986 edition of the World Championships, Biondi won another seven medals, including gold in the 100 freestyle. When he produced six more medals at the 1987 Pan Pacific Champs, there was no curtailing the lofty expectations placed upon him at the 1988 Olympics.

“He was born with all the right tools,” said Biondi’s coach, Nort Thornton. “He has an incredible feel for the water. It’s hard to describe. It’s the same feel a pianist has for the keys and an artist’s brush has for the canvas. He is able to sense the water pressure on his hands. He sets his hands at the right pitch, like a propeller on a boat. He is able to pitch his blades at the right angle. A lot of people don’t have that awareness.”

As much as Biondi wanted to go unnoticed in preparation for his work in Seoul, there was no stopping the hype his talent had created. Sixteen years after Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Games in Munich, Biondi was scheduled to race seven events in Korea – four individual and three relays. Of course, the question arose: Could all seven be gold?

In the years following Spitz’s achievement, the sport had changed significantly. There was now more depth around the world and the United States, while still a heavy favorite, would face greater challenges in the relays. Still, the media did not care. Journalists saw the chance to measure Biondi against Spitz, even if Biondi wanted nothing to do with the comparison. He knew he was in a no-win situation.

“The burden of public expectation is tremendous,” Biondi said. “It’s like a ladder. When you start out, you’re at the bottom and work up. There’s satisfaction every time you climb one more rung. You see your accomplishments. The people keep getting smaller and smaller at the bottom. But when you reach the top, there’s nowhere to go, only down. You look down and you have to fight people off. You lose a race and people sound as if you let them down. How could you do this to them?”

THE CHASE IS OVER

The alignment of Biondi’s seven-event schedule at his second Olympiad was front-heavy. Not only was the 200 freestyle, his most challenging event, the opener to his program, the 100 butterfly was his second event, and included a showdown with West Germany’s Michael Gross. When Biondi failed to win either event, some members of the press posed the question: What is wrong? Basically, Biondi proved prophetic when he suggested he might be held to an impossible standard.

Duncan Armstrong

GOLDEN PARTNERSHIP: Duncan Armstrong and Laurie Lawrence Photo Courtesy: Hanson Media

For Biondi, the 200 freestyle was the ultimate stretch of his prowess. The distance maximized Biondi’s range and when he earned the bronze medal behind Australia’s Duncan Armstrong and Sweden’s Anders Holmertz, there was a sense of pride in the accomplishment. Biondi knew a medal in the event was no foregone conclusion, and to stand on the podium was a superb result. Yet, NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas noted that Biondi, “settled for bronze.” It was a statement that didn’t sit well.

More, Biondi did everything in his power to win the race. Aware that his speed was his biggest asset, Biondi attacked the early laps and built a lead. It was a gutsy strategy that surely enabled him to medal, but he couldn’t fend off Armstrong or Holmertz, who were better known for their endurance and closing speed.

“It was (a feeling) of more relief than anything else because we had trained four or five years for that moment and the race takes less than two minutes,” Armstrong said, referring to the work he did under the watch of coach Laurie Lawrence. “You go two minutes on one day every four years. That’s the clock. You do an enormous amount of training and then you get there, and we had the perfect race. We had the great strategy and some good competition in the water. We had a world record. All my dreams and hopes in swimming came true in one touch of the wall. It was just wonderful. It was the perfect moment for us. It was the pinnacle of my swimming career.”

In the 100 butterfly, Biondi’s search for his first gold of the Games ended in excruciating fashion. While the American was able to beat Gross, his co-favorite, Biondi was doomed by a poor finish and lost the race to Suriname’s Anthony Nesty by .01. The frustration at the outcome was evident on Biondi’s face, and he didn’t hold back when writing about the race in a diary he kept for Sports Illustrated.

“I fouled up,” he said. “I’d do anything to do it over again, but I can’t. Maybe if I had grown my fingernails a little bit longer or kicked a little harder, I would have won. The wall came up at an odd time, at mid-stroke. I was caught halfway through a stroke and had to decide whether to take another stroke or kick in. I decided to kick to the wall.”

FINISHING STRONG

The bronze-silver start by Biondi not only ended the comparisons to Spitz but alleviated the pressure that followed him to Seoul and lit a fire for his final five events. Not long after he endured his narrow loss to Nesty in the 100 butterfly, Biondi climbed the blocks for the United States in the 800 freestyle relay and carried his country to a come-from-behind victory over East Germany in world-record time. Covering his anchor leg in 1:46.44, Biondi delivered the fastest split in history and generated momentum for his final four events.

Matt Biondi in the shadows too long – Photo Courtesy: Griffin Scott

From that point forward, the Californian couldn’t be stopped. Biondi followed with gold medals in the 100 freestyle and 400 freestyle relay over the next two nights, and backed up those performances with victories in the 50 freestyle and 400 medley relay. When he left Seoul, Biondi had five gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Years later, he also had an appreciation for the difficulty of his program.

“To think of Seoul, I was able to distinguish myself not just in America, but as a great Olympian. That was my high-water mark,” Biondi said. “That was a peak year. It’s hard to think about it. Like other people, I’m a guy who will burn a bagel in the toaster, but I got to take that trail. It’s kind of amazing.”

Biondi’s sweep of the sprint-freestyle events was a mixture of expectation and satisfaction. While Biondi delivered as the favorite to win the 100 freestyle, his ascent to the top of the podium in the 50 free required him to traverse a more-difficult path.

Squaring off with countryman Tom Jager, Biondi went into Seoul as an underdog in that event. Jager won the world title in the 50 free ahead of Biondi in 1986 and followed a year later by beating him again at Pan Pacs. But on the biggest stage, it was Biondi who found a way to prevail. How much did the victory mean? There is a well-known photo in the sport of Biondi thrusting his arm into the air in celebration, and it is an image that Biondi has long adored.

ONE MORE LAP

With Seoul in the rearview mirror, Biondi initially thought his career was over. Yet, as is the case with many elite athletes, the sport pulled him back into the water. Another solo world title was added to his resume at the 1991 World Championships, and he left his final Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona with two more gold medals in relay action and a silver medal in the 50 freestyle.

For his career, Biondi piled up 11 Olympic medals and complemented that excellence with the admiration of his teammates and rivals. There is no doubt, though, that the 1988 Games stand as his iconic moment.

“I always dream in the future,” he once said. “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.”

He was a shooting star in Seoul.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Christine Garcia

    Matt, it was an honor getting to know you in Waimea. You led your swimmers at Parker School and those you trained from other schools to see that swimming can be glorious and not just tedious. Miss you!

  2. avatar
    Ampersand

    It would be good to profile Don Schollander. No one has ever won both 100 and 400 Free in an Olympics. His best event was 200 Free, which was not an Olympic event in 64 … his relay time of 1:55 was 5 seconds ahead of the rest of the world at that time.

  3. avatar
    Rick Valentine

    Miguel Santos says CAL BEARS!

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