Until you hear the story about his parents' backyard, you might just think that 20-year-old Matthew Nicholas Biondi, all 6'6¼" of him, hazel-eyed and handsome and gracious and gold-medal-winning, has lived a life of complete and utter perfection. There have been no missteps—or should we say mis-splashes?—for Biondi is the world's foremost sprint freestyle swimmer. His is a world out of Spielberg, replete with ideal family, ranch house, well-scrubbed California suburb—everything but poltergeists rattling the closets.
Those, in a sense, are in the backyard. Matt, then 14, let a match slip one day when he was setting off some fireworks behind the Biondi house in Moraga, Calif., with his cousins and younger brother. In a moment the dry grass in the yard was ablaze. A wind kicked up, fanning the flames. The youngsters tried to drag over a garden hose but the coupling pulled apart. Matt stomped at the grass with his feet, sustaining a burn on his right shin that left a slight scar.
Biondi ran to the house to tell his mother, Lucille, who called the fire department and instructed Matt to run up the hill to warn neighbors that their homes might be in jeopardy. But the fire engines arrived in time and the blaze was put out. The fire captain gave Matt a stern lecture and told all the boys that if they were ever involved in any other trouble, this incident would be brought up and put on a police record.
"It put a good scare in Matt," recalls Lucille Biondi. "The only punishment I could think of after that was that he tell his dad." After Matt did that, Nick Biondi forbade his son, then a promising swimmer, to get into a pool for a week.
Biondi learned lessons from the backyard fire: Be careful, remember that you can be burned, and only display fireworks by—or in—the water. Those lessons have served him well.
Biondi, now a senior-to-be at Cal, is arguably the fastest swimmer alive. He holds the world record (48.95 seconds) in the 100-meter freestyle—the sport's glamour sprint event—as well as the American record in the 200 freestyle (1:47.89), in which he is just a tick behind West Germany's formidable world-record holder (1:47.44), 6'7½" Michael Gross.
Even though Biondi didn't begin training year-round until he was, for swimming, a relatively old 15, he already has an Olympic gold medal. He won the last spot on the U.S. 400-free relay team in 1984—"Matt who?" asked Rowdy Gaines when told the name of his relay teammate—and then turned in a powerful third leg in Los Angeles. Matt who, indeed. Swim mavens compare it to the first sighting of a comet.
A big, bright comet. "Yacht builders and shipbuilders have a key that the length of the keel determines the speed potential of the boat," says Nort Thornton, Biondi's coach at Berkeley. "It's also true for swimmers. The swimmer's keel is his side. And a person who has a great span from fingertips to toes—a person like Matt or Gross—has a tremendous advantage over a more normal person who has only two thirds or three quarters of that length."
Biondi has size 14 feet and a 6-foot, 7½-inch wingspan (Gross has a 7-foot-plus wingspan) to propel him through the water, and his kick is extraordinarily strong. But there's more than that—an element of grace. "Matt has a rare feel for the water," says Thornton. "It's the same feel a musician has for his instrument or a painter for his brush. They all have an affinity for their medium."
Olympic hero and ABC swimming commentator Mark Spitz says that for efficiency and smoothness, Biondi's stroke reminds him of his own. "And," says Spitz, "I've never seen anyone's before that I thought was close to mine, whatever that means."