Success often gets into athlete’s heads. It tends to confuse their priorities, to the point where they can’t enjoy the important things. They turn into egomaniacs with power and money, and they often misuse the gifts they’ve been given. Think Oscar Pistorius, Michael Phelps, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong and a whole slew of other disgraced athletes. The list is pretty long.
But this is not their story. This is the story of Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi: the man who won big and got out while he was still on top. It is the story of someone who, while being the fastest, knew enough to take his time when it mattered.
The story begins in 1970 in Moraga, Calif. Nothing ever happens in Moraga. And yet, it is here that Biondi started his life. One would think that he spent his entire childhood in the water, with crazy parents who beat him whenever he tried to take a break. In reality, just the opposite is true. Until high school, he rarely swam and spent the majority of his time on schoolwork and other sports.
But when he swam, boy did he swim. His precocious sprinting ability was noticed in his early teens, and by the time he was a senior in high school, he was widely accepted as the fastest schoolboy swimmer in the United States. His speed also made him an adept water polo player, and it got him noticed by a number of colleges. By which we mean every college was throwing itself at his feet.
In 1983, the already burgeoning 18-year-old Biondi came to Cal. Biondi’s college life was perhaps not one you would expect from a soon-to-be superstar. Although given an athletic scholarship, he found work washing dishes in exchange for meals — claiming he wanted a balanced meal, one that he would not get if he were responsible for feeding himself. Biondi is the kind of college student who wished he could eat at Crossroads.
Biondi’s schoolwork at Cal was slightly above average. Even though Biondi dedicated four hours a day to swimming and additional hours to weight training, he finished with a 3.0 GPA in his major of political economy of industrial societies. His ability to balance life with a strenuous training regimen was paramount to his continued success.
Athletically, Biondi shined while at Cal. His first year, he took his team to the NCAA Championships. And then his swimming really took off.
In the summer of of 1984, having only finished his first year at Cal, 18-year-old Biondi qualified for a spot on the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay, representing the United States at the Los Angeles Olympics. Here, Biondi debuted as a world-class swimmer, and the team won the gold and broke a world record by finishing in three minutes and 19 seconds.
With his first gold medal under his belt, or rather hanging from his neck, Biondi went back to Cal to win eight individual NCAA titles. In 1985, he set a world record in the 100-meter freestyle. By 1988, the 10 fastest times in that event were all by Biondi. In the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, he went on to win a total of 11 medals, eight of which are of that one Cal color. No, not blue: the other one.
The 1992 Olympics marked the last time Biondi would enter the Olympics in swimming. For most athletes, this would have been the time of an emotional spiral that would eventually lead to alcoholism and despair. Imagine focusing your life on trying to become the best and then realizing you are the best. A normal man would go insane, but Matt Biondi stayed the same humble and goodhearted person he always was. Why?
We can’t know for sure, but maybe it is because of a girl.
In 1992, after his last Olympics, Biondi met Kirsten Metzger at a Cal football game. It was not love at first sight, but the magic of Berkeley persisted, and the two bumped into each other again in the city. And then the Biondi struck real gold. The two got married and began their life together. Metzger convinced Biondi to continue his education, and he completed a master’s degree in education from Lewis and Clark College.
Always a great guy with kids and a passionate mentor, Biondi became a school teacher in Hawaii.
To this day, Biondi tries hard not to be the eight-time Olympic fold medalist and the holder of multiple swimming world records. He avoids sensationalism as much as he can. To his students, he is simply Mr. Biondi, the math teacher. And the coach of the swim team.
He and Metzger also have three kids of their own, and the family lives in peace in the beautiful Aloha state.
Some people deserve the title of a Cal Bear. Matt Biondi is one of them.
Image source: Atos International, under Creative Commons