3 Things Matt Biondi Taught Us About Swimming

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

I will never forget the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As an 8-year old who was starting to really get into swimming, it was my first experience watching the best swimmers in the world. For a week during September of 1988 I sat mesmerized learning about and watching names such as Michael Gross, Kristin Otto, Kriztina Egerzegi, Janet Evans, and Matt Biondi.

Each day I sat cross legged in front of my parents old Zenith television, dutifully hitting record-and-pause on the crusty old VCR each time swimming races came on. I soaked it all in, the pre-race profiles on swimmers (did you know Tomas Darnyi – who won the 400 IM – was blind out of one eye because of a snowball fight? Crazy!), and going back to that VHS in subsequent years each time I was looking to wield motivation for my own swimming aspirations.

Looking back on those Games, here are three lessons that Matt Biondi taught me about swimming–

1. Distance per stroke is awesome.

Matt Biondi, photo by Mike Lewis

Matt Biondi, photo by Mike Lewis

As an 8-year old I had yet to hear about distance per stroke. And truthfully, I don’t think I would have fully understood the concept – after all, wasn’t the idea to get your butt to the other end as fast as possible? Extending the stroke and being more efficient would have seemed counter-intuitive when all the other sprinters at the local pool were thrashing and splashing their way to first place finishes.

In later years, when swimming became a little more serious, things such as stroke count and DPS were introduced to the local white-board. It was then that I thought back to Biondi and his lengthy stroke. He made it look so easy, and with the speed that he was achieving, I was more than happy to abandon the thrashing for a stroke that was exponentially more elegant.

To this day when I head down to the Y for a swim, I still imagine myself cruising freestyle as Biondi, surfing above the water, riding that smooth freestyle across the distance of the pool.

2. Finish on a full stroke.

Matt got there first (Photo: Mike Lewis - Courtesy of U.S. Masters Swimming)

Matt got there first (Photo: Mike Lewis – Courtesy of U.S. Masters Swimming)

What some people forget is that before Phelps it was Biondi who had the closest shot at tying Mark Spitz’s record of 7 golds in a single Games. While he did come quite close – winning 5 golds – he did manage to come up short in a couple races. And not by much.

In the 100m butterfly stroke, Biondi went into the final with the second fastest time. He was heavily favored to win the event, and coming off the wall at the 50m Biondi was in control of the race. He held a half-body length over West Germany’s Michael Gross and Surinam’s Anthony Nesty and the rest of the field. As the finish closed in, Biondi discovered himself in a bit of a pickle – he hadn’t timed his strokes correctly on the second 50 metres, meaning that he would have to finish on half a stroke or glide in from about 2.5 metres out.

Unfortunately for Biondi, he chose the latter. He glided in – the glide which even upon re-watching seems to take about 3 days — while two lanes above Nesty closed in a flurry on a full stroke. Nesty finished first, winning by 0.01 hundredths of a second, quite literally stealing the race at the last possible moment.

3. Drafting is a legit thing.

Matt Biondi USMS Nationals by Mike LewisIn the 200 meter freestyle, which Biondi was favored to win as well, his long, powerful stroke was on full display.

Among the field were two other swimmers who had also held the world record in previous years – Gross and Poland’s Artur Wojdat. As the final got underway, Biondi charged out to the early lead. He was absolutely dominant over the first 100 meters, crushing the WR pace at the 100 meter mark by nearly a second.

Coming off the 100 Biondi continued to surge, leaving a massive, rolling wake behind him. Australia’s Duncan Armstrong, swimming just below him, recognized this, hugged the lane-line separating the two swimmers and hitched along for the ride.

Armstrong turned a meter behind him at the 150m, and with the energy saved from surfing on Biondi’s wave, charged past the American and touched the wall in first in a new world record time of 1:47.25 while Biondi would fade to 3rd.

The lesson here? Don’t give your competition a free lift to the podium.

About YourSwimBook

YourSwimBook is a log book and goal setting guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers. It includes a ten month log book, comprehensive goal setting section, monthly evaluations to be filled out with your coach, and more. Learn 8 more reasons why this tool kicks butt.

Team and group discounts are available for clubs. Fill out a request for a complimentary estimate by clicking here.

Join the YourSwimBook weekly newsletter group and get motivational tips and more straight to your inbox. Sign up here.

Leave a Reply

14 Comment threads
32 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
33 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted

How to finish my stroke in butterfly…. the “Matt Biondi” drill (a butterfly underwater pull that finished with you hands flicking out of the water as if you were finishing your stroke and you drive under and recover your arms under your body like the recovery in an underwater pull out in breaststroke) was one that I learned in my wee little ages.When I mention the drill today people have no idea who Matt Biondi even is.

coacherik's beard

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and BEARD ELITIST!

Good points about Mr. Biondi though.


I think that drafting is vastly overrated. No faster swimmer ever pulled me down the pool and heaven knows I’ve tried.

NM Coach

You need to watch the youtube video of the 1984 USA Men’s 800 F.R. and pay attention to Bruce Hayes!


Nicole Haislett won the 200m free in 1992 because Franziska van Almsick got too close to the lane line, and Haislett drafted off of her for 150 meters before making a move in the final 50. This is also why the US women were able to beat China in 1992 in the 400 free relay. Dara Torres and Nicole Haislett noticed the Chinese women were swimming too close to the lane line and told Jenny Thompson. The US won by .26 seconds.


Josh – not to knock down that drafting helps, but actually they probably would have won without it, as they won by over a half a second, not 0.26. It was more about Jenny saying a big F you to the Chinese on that anchor.

Coach K

Drafting overrated? So why do swimmers constantly “leave early” in practice on sets instead of waiting 5 seconds or more? My triathletes get it, and it is like pulling teeth to get them to stop riding the feet of the swimmers in front of them. When I space them out 5-10 seconds apart, they will still sprint to catch the swimmer in front of them so they can draft.

Coach K – I don’t think Billy’s point was that drafting is overrated in practice or in open water. I think his point was that drafting is overrated in races, with lane ropes, not directly behind but 6-8-24 inches laterally…


I beg to differ, Jason Lezak drafted hard on Alain Bernard in the 400 free relay final in Beijing

Darren Ward

Not overrated at all. I pulled a Duncan Armstrong on Troy Dalby at the 1991 Pan Pacs in Edmonton. Rode his wake fir 150 meters…right up on the rooe and in his “Pocket”… Made the turn and could not believe how much energy I had left… Went rught by him to taje the Bronze….oh its a real thing all right.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

Read More »