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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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