Catching up with Matt Biondi
When it came time for Carl Sturges to say a few words at a banquet honoring the new teachers on the Parker School staff a couple of years ago, he was left in the unenviable position of following the other new guy: Matt Biondi.
"I remember he ended his speech talking about standing up on the platform receiving the Olympic medal for his country," said Sturges, now the headmaster at the Kamuela, Hawaii-based school. "He gets off the stage to thunderous applause. Then I have to go up to give the next speech, like, 'I'm here from Utah, I'm just a teacher.'"
So is Biondi. The gold-medal swimmer has spent the last seven years teaching grades 6 through 12 with little fanfare. Settled on Hawaii's Big Island with his wife, Kirsten, and their three children, his life is a far cry from the days when he was USA Swimming's brightest superstar.
As a sprinter with a unique combination of size (6-foot-6) and flawless mechanics, Biondi won 11 medals in three Olympics from 1984 through 1992, including seven (five golds, a silver and a bronze) at the '88 Seoul Games. He is tied with swimming legend Mark Spitz and shooter Carl Osburn as the most decorated American men in Olympic history.
Biondi's success in the pool helped him segue into a post-swimming career of instructional clinics and motivational speaking engagements. But as the years passed, and the new-day, new-city travel schedule took its toll, he began to feel burned out and unfulfilled.
"It was ironic that I was speaking about inspiration, overcoming adversity, and personal excellence, and I would be up on stage just like a zombie, saying the words but not really feeling them anymore," he said.
He decided to change his life. He resettled in Portland and earned a master's degree in teaching from Lewis & Clark College in 2000 (he had graduated from Cal with a degree in Political Economy of Industrialized Countries in '88). Then it was off to his wife's native Hawaii, where he landed a job at Parker, a K-12 private school with 300 students. Said Biondi: "It was what I needed to do to be happy and to feel like my life was going to continue to mean something to me and others."
Despite years of experience as a public speaker, Biondi said connecting with a roomful of teenagers was a big challenge. He recalled one of his first classes, an SAT-prep course, that got out of hand when the students became transfixed by an M.C. Escher poster on the wall.
"I lost complete control," he said. "The kids all got out of their seats, they sat on the floor, and they were just looking at the wall. I felt completely helpless."
Biondi struggled in his first year-and-a-half of teaching before finding his groove through self-coaching and constructive criticism from other faculty members. He now teaches five periods of math fundamentals, algebra and geometry, with class sizes ranging from five to 18. He also taught American history until this year. In '05, Biondi founded a swim team at the school. (Parker doesn't have a pool, so he drives the 10-person squad to the local pool about 20 minutes away for after-school practices.)
As for any celebrity status among the students, well, there isn't much. "One kid came in and said, 'You know, the weirdest thing happened,'" said Biondi, 42. "I was over at someone's house and the parents were talking. I was bored and was flipping through a coffee-table book and here was this big picture of you. What were you doing in that book?'"
The chance to reinvent himself in relative anonymity has suited Biondi just fine. "[The students] know he's a name, but they don't really know who he is," Sturges said. "He's not a current star, so they don't care that much, and that's kind of the way he likes it. He's just Mr. Biondi, the math teacher."