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November 19, 2012
Before there was Coughlin, Adrian, or Leverenz, there was Matt Biondi.
Winner of 11 Olympic medals overall, Biondi stepped to the podium seven times at the 1988 Olympiad. America's top sprinter was so dominant, in fact, that at one time he owned the world's 10 fastest 100-meter freestyle times.
Collegiately, Biondi was just as dominant. A three-time winner of the NCAA's Swimmers of the Year Award, Biondi also suited up -- or down if you've ever been to a water polo match -- for Pete Cutino and Cal Water Polo. Three national championships later, Biondi left Berkeley Aquatics as its most accomplished individual ever.
So it stands to reason, then, that he'd be highly recruited, right? I mean c'mon, the guy was the fastest schoolboy sprinter in the country. He resided in one of the nation's swimming hotbeds, was the son of a water polo coach, and was broader than a Hum-V.
But few people saw his full potential, and one legendary swim coach -- we'll call him "polarizing" in the interest of veiled objectivity -- flatly told Biondi he didn't have what it took to be a champion.
What was Biondi's response? "I always made it a point of sticking it to Stanford."
Rivals: You went to Campolindo High School in Moraga. Did you take many recruiting trips or had you always planned on going to Cal?
Matt Biondi: My first visit was to Stanford where [Stanford's "legendary" swim coach] Skip Kenney flat out told me that I didn't have what it took to swim at the college level. So, Stanford was out. Then, my next trip was to UCLA and the coach down there, Ron Ballatore, really wanted me to come, but they were only offering me a partial scholarship and [Bruins Water Polo Coach] Bob Horn wouldn't return my phone calls. He didn't think I was going to be good enough to play water polo. My third visit was to Cal. Nort [Thornton] offered me a full ride right away and Pete Cutino and Steve Heaston spent the evening with me just hanging out at La Val's. I think we split a family-size pizza. I committed soon after.
Rivals: And that was during your junior campaign?
Biondi: Actually, that was my senior year. I was the national record holder [editor's note: Biondi set the national high school record in the 50-free as a senior] but was not as highly regarded as guys like Pablo Morales or, ironically, a guy named Joe Biondi. Those guys were blue chippers, whereas my times still needed some improvement. By my freshman year, though, I was the high-point scorer on the swim team at Cal and then that summer I made the Olympic Team. The next year I set American records in the 1500 and 200 free, so even though I was pretty green coming out of high school, my potential rating was largely unrecognized by everybody except for Nort.
Rivals: You must have left Stanford cringing after going on to 1985, '86, and '87 NCAA Swimmer of the Year honors.
Biondi: It wasn't just that Stanford passed on recruiting me. It was the nerve of a college coach to tell an aspiring, talented young athlete that he didn't have what it took. I mean, as the years have gone by, I have (developed) a very low opinion of a man who would do that. He could've said "hey, we're all full, good luck", or "we have other freestylers already committed." But to tell me straight to my face that I wasn't any good? It really takes a unique individual and unique sense of sportsmanship to say something like that. So I always made it a point of sticking it to Stanford whenever I got the chance.
Rivals: You played water polo for the Bears, as well. I hear all sorts of stories about Coach Pete Cutino and what a taskmaster he was. Did you have that impression of him, as well?
Biondi: Yeah, very much so in the beginning. After those pleasantries on the recruiting trip, I saw him in the locker room the first day of practice. He's Italian so he could joke with me about being Italian. He said "Biondi, you Dago, your ass is mine. Get your ass in the water!" I was really scared.
Rivals: So he really was an intimidating presence, then?
Biondi: You know, the beauty of Pete was that he didn't just coach you by the day or by the season, he coached you by your career. My freshman year, he was all bark and bite. But by my senior year, I remember being in his office with my feet up on his desk talking about strategy, life, girls, whatever. A freshman came in and said "hey Pete, how's it going?" Pete stood up in his chair and yelled "go get dressed and get down to the pool you lousy freshman!" And here I was, a senior, with my feet up on his desk.
Rivals: I think they call that "coming full circle."
Biondi: Yeah. There are very few coaches that I think about as time goes on, but I'll often think of little lessons that I learned from him. For example, we had just won the national championship and we're sitting in the airport lobby waiting for our plane. I walk over and I say to Pete "isn't it great we're national champions?" He said "yeah, but we still have to take out the trash and walk the dogs in the morning." At the time I thought "what a grumpy thing to say. Can't the guy just sit there and enjoy life for a moment?" But then as I won my world championships and gold medals, and was able to read about myself in the paper, I realized he was right. At the end of the day, you need to keep moving forward and can't get bogged down in your accomplishments. Pete was really a life coach, and I say that with all sincerity. I wouldn't say that about many people, but he was the real deal.
Rivals: That's cool that one of your most influential mentors wasn't even a swim coach.
Biondi: I'll tell you something else about Pete: Right before he died, he and I had talked about getting together for lunch in Monterey. I was living in Hawaii and was out here on vacation. He was about an hour-and-a-half drive away and I was just about to cancel when at the last minute I decided "no, if I've learned anything from Pete, it's that if you make a commitment you follow through." So I went down there and spent the day with him, telling him about the school I was teaching at and asking him how to build a successful swimming program from nothing. Ten days later, he had a massive heart attack in the same chair and that was it. I would've missed my opportunity to spend time with him.
Rivals: Wow. Sounds like Cal was the perfect fit for you.
Biondi: I ended up going where I was most wanted and that was Berkeley, and that ended up being the best choice.
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