3 Things Matt Biondi Taught Us About Swimming

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy 46

September 02nd, 2017 Lifestyle, Masters, News

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.

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  1. Anna says:

    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.

  2. coacherik's beard says:

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

    Good points about Mr. Biondi though.

  3. Billy says:

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

    • NM Coach says:

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

    • Josh says:

      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.

      • LBswim says:

        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 says:

      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.

      • Braden Keith says:

        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…

    • James says:

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

    • Darren Ward says:

      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.

  4. Joel Lin says:

    Drafting is exponentially more in play at the highest world class levels because those athletes have motorboat flutter kicks that create a greater wave and cave to draft in. Best, and most under appreciated, example of this was Lezak on the anchor leg of the 4×100 in Beijing. Bernard went out like a madman and Lezak was right on his feet, then his hip for the first 70 meters. Lezak did not just swim the greatest relay leg in history, he swam the smartest leg in history.

    Sorry Billy, you seem to be among us mortals.

    • Tea says:

      Best? No doubt. Under-appreciated? I’m pretty sure everyone thinks of Jason Lezak when you say the words “drafting in swimming”.

      Another good one was Pieter Vandenhoogenband chasing DOWN Lezak in 2004 – splitting a full second faster than his WR time, and almost 1.5 seconds faster than his flat start at that meet. I always wonder “hmmm… think Jason Lezak learned something from that?”

    • Peter Davis says:

      This is true, and a big reason why mid d freestylers are so good at the 100m free…and why the relay orders set by some pretty well-known USA coaches at some pretty big international meets over the last few years has been so terrible. Start your mid d guys(ahem Lochte/Phelps)so they get to go out :23 flat and still get dragged to a :47high/:48low by the true sprinters. If a mid d guy goes in with the lead on the anchor, you shouldn’t be hoping for much, or even much better than flat start, if that. Now if a sprinter goes in/gets behind on the anchor, you are liable to see a time :01+ faster than their best, like Lezak and Adrian. This is really straightforward relay strategy, and will be handled better when Durden is in the mix/leading the staff at international meets.

      • TheTroubleWithX says:

        So you’re suggesting Phelps in 2012 quite possibly would’ve gone 47.2-47.5 had he lead off the 4×100 free? He had the lead the whole second leg of that relay, so he wasn’t aided by any drafting, as far as I can tell.

        • ERVINFORTHEWIN says:

          Its more like Cullen Jones didnt hold the advantage that phelps Created with his 47.2 to keep the french at a distance . Thats why it needed a 46. by Agnel to finally get Lochte ( a non sprinter ) down . I would say it was a bad Usa relay at all – they just didnt get a 47.2 on the anchor – drafting or not .

          • ERVINFORTHEWIN says:

            it wasn’t as bad of a relay line – up than it looks . thats what i meant .

          • crooked donald says:

            Lochte, a non-sprinter, who had two 400 IMs and two 200 frees under his belt (including the semis of the 200 free right before it) before that swim on Day 2.

        • DLswim says:

          Maybe not 47.5, but remember that in 2008 Phelps led off with an American record!

  5. easyspeed says:

    Yeah I would put Matt as #3 on the GOAT list. 1. Phelps, 2. Spitz, 3. Biondi. Too bad there wasn’t pro swimming back then because MB would have added more gold to his resume.

    • NM Coach says:

      Let’s make NO MISTAKE about this! The reason that the swimmers today are able to make money is BECAUSE of Matt Biondi and Tom Jager…they were the trail blazers for the original “Dash for Cash”! Those races paved the way for people to now make a decent living as a pro swimmer.

    • BaldingEagle says:

      Michael Gross was also REALLY REALLY GOOD, and deserves to be in the top 4 GOAT conversation. He had WR’s in the 100-200 fly and the 200-400 free (he took the 400 record from Salnikov), and competed in the era just before people earned a living or profited from swimming. I think we lose sight of Der Albatross because he wasn’t American.

      In 1984, he won gold in the 100 fly and 200 free, and famously, the silver in the 4 x 200 FR and the 200 fly. None other than John Naber said that, had he been American, he’d have won 6-7 medals in LA. It’s worth thinking about. Not only the 4 events he won medals in, but turn that 4 x 200 to gold, plus add the 4 x 100 MR (he won the gold, he certainly would have been on that relay), and possibly the 4 x 100 FR, as well. That would have made the total: 5 gold (100 fly, 200 free, all three relays), and silver in the 200 fly.

      He won gold again in the 200 fly in Seoul, but, had he been American, would have been on the 4 x 200 FR (he was in the A final of the 200 free), and at least the flier in the morning heats of the 4 x 100 MR (he placed one position higher than the second American, Jay Mortenson, in the Olympic final).

      Final (American) total: 8 gold, 1 silver. Final (German total): 3 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze.

      Also, in his era, WC’s were only every 4 years, for the most part (1982, 1986, 1991, a five-year gap). He won 13 WC medals (5 gold) between 1982 and 1991. He won 5 non-gold medals on relays swimming for FRG/GER: those might have all been gold if he’d been American.

      Of course, he WASN’T American, so the results were in large part solo efforts, and without huge media coverage. Again, this was an era just before swimmers started to make money and swim professionally. He was ONLY 24 when he swam his last Olympics in 1988, and 27 when he won his last WC gold (4 x 200 FR) in 1991. Phelps and Lochte will be 31 this summer.

    • W3T says:

      What about Shirley Babshoff!?!? Barring the East German dopers, she would have had 6 golds in ’76. She would have likely had more if the 4×200 FR and 50 free had been events. Or Shane Gould, who won five individual medals (three gold) in 1972? No option for three relay medals for her.

    • Swimmer? says:

      Well Lochte did GOAT material in 2010-11 that put him up with Phelps and Spitz. 4 individual golds at both Pan Pacs and Worlds. Only Phelps has topped that, and only by .01. Unfortunately for him he “only” got 1 individual gold at London because the 200 im schedule was too short after a disappointing 2 back. I mean, if Phelps wasn’t existing, and Lochte made the same achievements he did, then he would be the Lebron James to Spitz’s Jordan.

  6. mikeh says:

    Here is my Hot Sports Opinion – until Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time was Tracy Caulkins.

  7. Springbrook says:

    Great article about a great swimmer. And he’s still great. Swam a 46.83 in 100 yard free at 2014 Masters Nationals — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BbsTYzfRjc. Only a tad bit slower than his high school time of 45.04!

    • Coaches says:

      Yep. The great Mr. Biondi is still great. He’s an example of what makes swimming a great lifetime sport. Nice article about a standout swimmer.

  8. Mike says:

    Biondi was truly amazing a near perfect freestyle. Think about this he still holds 3 top 10 times at Cal, 19.15 in 50 free, 41.80 in 100 free and 1:33.03 in 200 free. Not too bad for 1986 and 1987.

  9. Coachandy says:

    Shirley Babbashoff

  10. swimmer says:

    It’s Krisztina Egerszegi with the ‘s’ letters in front of the ‘z’ ones

  11. Asher Green says:

    Love the article. Wojdat never held the WR in the 200 M Free, but he did go into the 1988 finals as the top seed, and he did hold the WR in the 400 M Free. Arguably the greatest 2-beat kick freestyler of all time.

    • Brad Flood says:

      That’s correct Asher re: Artur never holding the 200 M Free WR, and I agree with your assessment that he was the greatest 2-beat kick freestyler of all time. People don’t believe it when I tell them that for the last 2.5 years he trained with me, we stopped even attempting to have him do straight up “kick sets”…it was a waste of time. The only way to get him to kick “hard” in practice, was to swim “hard”.

      • Asher Green says:

        You did a great job with him at Iowa and I would rank him as one of the greatest Hawkeye swimmers of all time. All the greater given his inability or unwillingness to kick;)

  12. AWSI DOOGER says:

    Great article. Based on the age of the comments it appears this article is promoted here every year or so. Justifiably.

    I still have tapes of those 1988 Olympic swimming races. I uploaded them to YouTube maybe 7 or 8 years ago and received hundreds of comments until the IOC started targeting my channel for copyright complaints. They forced me to take down some specific races and finally YouTube shut down my channel. Then not all of the races were subsequently provided on YouTube by the IOC and Olympic channels. Ridiculous. If you target something you should make sure you aren’t denying viewership.

    The aspect of finishing on a full stroke is my ultimate pet peeve in this sport. It seems so absurdly random and not emphasized enough. For all the sophistication now involved in swimming it seems like it’s mostly guesswork approaching the wall. Half or glide? Meanwhile, it should never be guesswork. Each athlete should know darn well what the math says…overall and regarding themselves specifically. Am I gaining 3 hundredths or sacrificing similar? Everybody should know how it varies on each discipline and depending on how far from the wall. Instead it’s beyond pathetic how many races are surrendered and how much time is lost simply due to poor subjective choices.

    In every race once it reaches 10-15 meters from the final wall that is the only thing I am evaluating…are the top contenders going to finish perfectly on a full stroke or not. It’s amazing how often I can decipher the outcome based on that alone. Rowdy seemingly waits until the race is over to pay any attention at all. So often he’ll be screaming about relationship to the red world record line but meanwhile that line is destined to get away in the final foot or two if the swimmer is not finishing on a full stroke. That’s why Rowdy is so often fooled…yelling the record is going to fall but then the final time is a few hundredths shy.

    Eventually I think the sport will progress to the point it will be considered unbelievable that so little emphasis was previously placed on the swimmers understanding the ideal strategy to get to the wall. Pulling the head back to check your time immediately is absurd also. That head weighs quite a bit. You want the weight working for you toward the wall, not counteracting measures.

    • luigi says:

      Magnini notably raised his head in the last meter of his 100 free final in Montreal 2005 … he still won, but he took a big chance and lost a few hundredths there …

    • Oldercoach says:

      Phelps might have something to say about this. I can think of at least two seemingly improvised finishes that proved his genius at getting the hands to the wall. It would be hard to convince me that he planned this 8-10 meters out…

  13. jay ryan says:

    His son Nate will be swimming for Cal this year. He has making big improvements in the last 18 months. It will be fun to watch him develop. Go Bears.

  14. swimmer says:

    It still amazes me that after all these years and all those achievements people still can’t type their names correctly:
    It is Krisztina Egerszegi (not Kriztina Egerzegi) and Tamas (not Tomas) Darnyi. I do not want to further confuse non-Hungarians with a special character in Darnyi’s name, so let’s just leave it at that. The funny thing is no one makes a mistake when it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name 😀

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About 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 …

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