THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 5 : Agony of Loss Fades With Thrill of Win : Biondi Comes Up Short in Butterfly for Silver, Then Anchors World-Record Relay for Gold
Matt Biondi won his third medal of the Olympic Games, his first made of gold, when he anchored the U.S. men’s 800-meter freestyle relay team with the fastest relay leg ever, a swim that held off his longtime rival, Michael Gross of West Germany, and overtook the leading East Germans.
Biondi’s anchor leg of 1 minute 46.44 seconds gave the U.S. the world record at 7:12.51.
He did that two hours after finishing a close second in the men’s 100-meter butterfly, an event that he figured to win.
As he waited for the rest of the swimmers to catch up with him in the interview room, he made an opening statement: “To be honest with you, I was a little bit disappointed after the 100-meter butterfly. It was 1/100th of a second. That was all I could think about. What’s 1/100th of a second? What if I had grown my fingernails two weeks longer?
“But during the time between my races, my three teammates were real supportive. We wanted to get together to do the best we could.
“I was definitely tired of losing. That last 25 meters was starting to hurt, but all I could think of was that I didn’t want to be anywhere else except at the top of the awards stand with my three teammates.”
To some, getting a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze medal in the 200-meter freestyle wouldn’t be losing. But Biondi came into these Games with very high expectations.
It was a surprise to have two virtually unknown swimmers pass him in the final meters of the 200 freestyle. But it was a shock for Anthony Nesty of Surinam to overtake him at the touch of the 100-meter butterfly.
Biondi was just short on his last stroke of the men’s 100-meter butterfly, having to coast a few feet to touch the pad and stop the clock, a miscalculation that cost him a gold medal. Biondi got the clock stopped at 53.01 seconds, an impressive time, better than the time that had him ranked best in the world this year.
But while he was gliding, Nesty brought an extra, shorter stroke over the top and touched at 53.00.
Nesty, the first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, comes from a small country on the northeast coast of South America that used to be Dutch Guyana.
Nesty made himself known last summer at the Pan American Games. But his gold medal there was somewhat tarnished by the fact that the best American swimmers, including Biondi, were competing in the Pan Pacific Games in Australia.
Nesty, who has been training in the United States since 1985, went to high school in Jacksonville, Fla., and started attending the University of Florida last January. He’ll be a sophomore at Florida.
Nesty seemed to be the only one not surprised by his upset.
The competition in the 100-meter butterfly was supposed to come from the likes of Andy Jameson of Great Britain or Gross, the gold medalist in 1984. Jameson took the bronze in 53.30.
But once again, Gross, one of the stars of the 1984 Games, came in fifth, as he had in the 200.
Biondi, who had started strong, getting out at a world-record pace, had said right after the race: “I am very angry. That’s all.”
It was, after all, his own mistake at the touch that cost him his first individual gold medal.
“As luck would have it, or not have it, the wall came up at an odd time, at midstroke,” Biondi said. “I was caught halfway through a stroke and had to decide whether to take another stroke or kick in. I decided to kick in.
“The distance to the wall can be deceptive. If you try to take another stroke too close, you can end up hitting with your nose.
“If I could do it over, I’d do it differently. I also would probably swim a smoother first 50 and have more to come home with, but it’s done now.”
Biondi was taking that silver medal much better after his superb performance in the relay.
There had been a lot of buildup for the 800-meter freestyle relay. For starters, the United States has never lost that relay, and this group--Troy Dalbey, Matt Cetlinski, Doug Gjertsen and Biondi--didn’t want to be the first to lose it.
And, too, it meant a lot to Gross. This is the relay that West Germany fully expected to win in Los Angeles in 1984, only to have American Bruce Hayes beat Gross in the final leg for the upset, giving the U.S. team the nickname “Gross-busters.”
Gross had said that, to him, the 800-meter relay was the most important event to him here, more important than any individual event.
As if losing to the United States again wasn’t bad enough, the West Germans took the bronze here, finishing even behind the East Germans.
Actually, it turned out to be the East German, Steffen Zesner, that Biondi had to catch on the anchor leg.
The U.S. team was so intent upon winning the 800-meter freestyle relay that Coach Richard Quick didn’t release his start list until 30 minutes before the day’s swimming began.
“That was a great win for us,” Quick said. “It should provide the spark that the team needs to get going. Troy overswam the first part of his race, so we got behind a little more than we had planned.
“However, the other three guys swam great races.”
It took a great race, and a great anchor swim, to beat East Germany, the defending world champion, and West Germany, the team that held the world record.
Gross said that after he saw the 200-meter freestyle Monday, he had a feeling that the 800-meter relay time was going to be a world record and that West Germany would be lucky to win a medal of any sort.
For Gross, it was his first medal of the Games.
Biondi has three medals, with four events to go. He still has the 50-meter freestyle, the 100-meter freestyle, the 400-meter freestyle relay and the 400-meter medley relay to swim.