THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 9 : Biondi, the Underdog, Ends Up Top Dog Again

Times Staff Writer

In one mighty wave, the biggest and strongest swimmers in the world sprinted for the wall, racing all out in the newest Olympic event. Matt Biondi got there the fastest, winning the first Olympic gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle.

Biondi has been picking up momentum through his first six events here. He started with a bronze medal, next won a silver, then won four consecutive golds and still has one event to go.

He had expected to win a sixth medal Saturday night, but not a gold.

Tom Jager had been the favorite in the 50. He also had his heart and mind set on winning it.


But Biondi surprised everyone by powering the length of the pool in 22.14 seconds, taking not just the gold but also Jager’s world record, which had been 22.23, set in March. Jager won the silver medal in 22.36, and Soviet Gennadi Prigoda the bronze in 22.71.

If anyone was going to beat Jager, though, it was going to be Biondi.

“I don’t think there’s a better competition anywhere in athletics than the competition Tom and I have in the 50,” Biondi said. “We’ve traded the American record back and forth a couple of times.

“And the world record? He had it and then I had it, and then he got it back and now I have it back. No doubt he’ll have it again.”


The competition has not been all that even, and Jager has the edge. It’s hard to say exactly what the overall record is between these two, because it gets complicated with 50-meter races in national and international events and 50-yard races over their collegiate seasons.

Jager is a UCLA graduate, Biondi a Cal graduate and they’ve been meeting for years in everything from collegiate dual meets to World Championships.

And how long as it been since Biondi beat Jager?

“The last time I beat Tom in the 50 in a big meet was in 1986, I think,” Biondi said. “Was it the NCAAs? I don’t know. It’s been so long I can’t remember.”

At the U.S. Olympic trials in Austin, Tex., last month, Biondi characterized the 50 as a race involving no strategy, that it consists of nothing more than an ultra-important quick start and an all-out sprint. What you do in the 50, Biondi said, is “blast.”

Jager calls the 50, “Fly and die.”

Competitors hardly even bother to breathe during this race. Top sprinters take two or three breaths. Jager sometimes takes only one.

Yet, in winning the gold medal Saturday night, Biondi swam it differently, he said.


“I’ve had problems in the past with racing rather than swimming, and I’ve run out of steam at the end,” Biondi said. “I thought the best way to do it was to take very long strokes in the first few meters and then try to swim my race.”

He did that, using the same long, controlled strokes that he had used to win the 100.

Biondi said he also took advantage of the lack of pressure in a race in which he was not the favorite. “I wanted to swim one race where I wasn’t the great favorite so I could just relax and swim my own race. That was the 50.”

Jager gave credit to Biondi, saying: “Matt swam an unbelievable race. That’s what makes him a champion. He has improved in this race by studying other people.”

Jager, who swam on a gold-medal relay team in 1984 and another gold-medal relay team in 1988, had only one chance for an individual gold. When the 50 was not included in the ’84 Games, he decided to continue training beyond his college days.

Now, whereas Biondi is saying that this will be his last swim meet--although not his last Olympic Games if he makes the water polo team--Jager is promising to keep at it.

“One of my greatest virtues is my perseverance,” Jager said. “It took me 18 years to get straight A’s in school. It took me 19 years of swimming to get an individual medal at the Olympics. I’ll be back 4 years from now trying the 50 again. I have some goals I haven’t reached yet.”