SEPTEMBER 14, 1988
Four years ago Matt Biondi turned down a request from SI to be interviewed for CATCHING UP WITH because he felt as if his life hadn't moved forward, and he wasn't too happy about that. At the time he was earning a living as a motivational speaker and swim clinic instructor—basically trading on the fame that came with winning a record-tying 11 Olympic swimming medals (eight gold, two silver, one bronze) from 1984 through '92 and setting 12 world records along the way. Near the peak of his career he had seen the movie Everybody's Ail-American, about an athlete who clings to past glory, and the California native vowed never to make that mistake. To his mind, when SI first contacted him, he had not kept that promise.
But he's ready to talk now, because he's accomplished something outside of the pool. He's no longer Matt Biondi, swimmer; he's Mr. Biondi, math teacher. In 2000 he earned a master's in teaching from Lewis & Clark College in Portland and since last fall has taught at Parker School, which has 126 students in grades seven through 12, in Kamuela, Hawaii. Instead of addressing adulatory fans on the rubber-chicken circuit, Biondi stands before a room of sarcastic teenagers—and he loves it. Raised in Maraga, Calif., and a graduate of Berkeley, Biondi chose to teach in Hawaii because his wife, Kirsten, is from Oahu. The couple live in an 800-square-foot house with their two children (Nate, 3, and Lucas, two months), and Matt rides his bike a quarter mile to work.
When asked to recount his swimming career, Biondi does so with a trace of weariness. In the year before the '92 Games in Barcelona, he says, "I can't tell you how many mornings I got to the pool and stood over the cold water and just had to force myself to drop in." His desire to distance himself from his past is such that when he had two job offers from Hawaii private schools, he chose the school that didn't have a swim team. As for his Olympic medals, after storing them in a bank vault, Biondi donated all of them in '94 to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago.
One vestige of his former life: Biondi teaches an elective course entitled Personal Excellence, a trimesterlong version of his old 45-minute motivational speech. His message is, "You can't guarantee anything in life. But you can shape it, and you can direct it." He's much happier for having done that himself.