In 1972, Mark Spitz was the face of Olympic swimming, picking up seven of his nine career gold medals in Munich and setting world records in the process. Thirty-six years later, Michael Phelps firmly became the face of the sport by besting Spitz’s mark, winning eight golds in Beijing.
But halfway between those eras, Matt Biondi was the face of American swimming.
The numbers are staggering. Besides Spitz and Phelps, no swimmer has ever matched the eight golds Biondi racked up from 1984-92 in Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona. Only five athletes have surpassed Biondi’s mark in any sport. You could make the argument that Biondi is not just the greatest swimmer Cal has ever produced, but the best athlete the school has had in any sport.
Biondi always excelled in the water. The Palo Alto native was a key cog in the Cal men’s water polo team’s national championship run as a freshman before he decided to train exclusively for swimming. His first Olympic gold came as a member of the 400 free relay in 1984, a win that would catapult him to further success four and eight years later. His five golds in 1988 were the most any American men’s swimmer had won since Spitz. Four of those races set world records.
Natalie Coughlin has since approached Biondi’s mark of 12 career Olympic medals. With one more race impending, Coughlin could tie Biondi’s mark in London as the most decorated Cal Olympian ever.
But when it comes to the golds, no Cal athlete bests Matt Biondi.