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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46 Comments on "3 Things Matt Biondi Taught Us About Swimming"

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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.

Peter Davis
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… Read more »

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.

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


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 .

crooked donald

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.


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

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?”

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.

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.

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.

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… Read more »

He was an Icon of his own in swimming . I watched that period where he was shining until the 88 Games .


Of course, Tracy Caulkins was the greatest woman swimmer of all time. It took Mary T to break her WR in the 200 fly.

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.

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

Just waiting to read the first post that says that Tracy could’ve been better if Paul Bergen didn’t train her so hard!

LOL! 🙂

Agree 100%. If it wasn’t for the 1980 boycott, she would be a household name today. American records in all 4 strokes and the IM, and the only swimmers faster in her time were the drugged-up East Germans.

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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