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Matt Biondi’s next challenge: teaching

June 12, 2000

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    Matt Biondi, one of the world's greatest Olympic athletes, earned a master's degree in teaching from Lewis & Clark College in August.

No other American has won more Olympic medals than Matt Biondi M.A.T. ’00. Biondi earned his first Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Four years later in Korea, he was the star of the show, earning five golds, one silver and one bronze. In 1992, he brought home two more golds and a silver, for a total of 11 Olympic medals. Biondi’s medals hang in the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago.

In August, Biondi earned something else he also holds dear—a master’s degree in teaching with a teaching license in social studies from Lewis & Clark’s graduate school.

“Teaching can be a daunting experience,” he says, comparing his student teaching at Conestoga Middle School to building a house with a hammer.

“Initially, you have very few skills and lots of nerves, but you struggle your way through it,” he says. “To be a good teacher, to be an effective teacher,” he adds thoughtfully, “you have to be able to employ a variety of skills and approaches under the right conditions at the right time for the right individual.”

Despite his natural ability in the water—some say supernatural quality—Biondi had to work to create the conditions that would make him a star, just as he’s had to work hard to learn to teach.

In high school in Moraga, Calif., where Biondi grew up, he was so skinny that classmates called him Spiderman. To compensate for his strength disadvantage, he worked to create a perfect long, powerful stroke; his kick became a veritable weapon.

“I took practice very seriously,” Biondi told a newspaper reporter recently. “I was always conscious of every lap and every stroke. I was thinking about what I was doing and about how I could make it better.”

His focus and hard work paid off.

“Matt Biondi is one of the all-time greatest Olympians, not just one of the greatest swimmers,” Charlie Snyder, communications director for U.S. Swimming, commented last year.

He ranks among the 50 Most Significant Sports Figures of the 20th Century.

In September, Biondi again was involved with the Olympics—this time as a radio commentator.

“This was my fifth Olympics,” he points out. “The days were very intense and full, but they were experiences to remember for a lifetime.”

As a traveling motivational speaker and occasional spokesman for the Olympics, “I’ve done everything from dressing up like King Neptune for a Mardi Gras parade to signing autographs for two-and-a-half hours,” Biondi says with mixed feelings.

Although he describes motivational speaking as rewarding, it was also tiring and kept him away from home.

“I remember traveling 25 days a month for 18 months and speaking in 12 cities in eight days,” he says.

He longed to be home with his wife, Kirsten, who earned a master’s degree in public administration from Lewis & Clark’s graduate school in 1996. They married in 1995, and their son, Nathaniel (Nate), was born in 1998.

Happily tucked away for the moment in a tiny house with a big yard in southwest Portland, Biondi aims for a job in Oregon or Hawaii where he can combine teaching with coaching swimming.

He appreciates the personal attention students receive at Lewis & Clark.

“The teacher education office has just been incredible,” Biondi says, recalling a time he had to rearrange his schedule at the last minute.

Biondi also praises the graduate school’s cohort program, where he and 18 other interns took the majority of their education classes together from June 1999 to August 2000.

“We had some heated moments and a lot of funny moments,” he says. “It was a valuable and rich experience. I learned to appreciate how different people and personalities interpret material.”

“Matt has a strong presence in the classroom, but there’s a complementary side to that: He’s very gentle with the kids,” says Mary Burke-Hengen, instructor of education and cohort coordinator. “He’s supportive but has clear expectations of his students. He thinks through what he’s asking. He’s observant and confident as a teacher. He asks good questions—ones that make students think for themselves. He’s very forceful in a nonforceful way. That’s unusual for a beginning teacher,” she adds.

“One of the strengths of Lewis & Clark’s graduate program is its attention to justice and fairness and its sense of caring for the environment,” Biondi notes. “I’ve learned to pay attention to moral and ethical deliberation in all areas of my everyday life—in my life as a husband, father, neighbor and community member.”

“Matt is a flexible and inquiring thinker who cares passionately about youth and is deeply reflective on his own evolution as a teacher,” comments Carol Witherell, professor of education. She worked with Biondi on an independent study course on the theories of moral development and ethics in education. “He will bring many talents to his teaching of young people,” Witherell says.

“The very heart of good teaching has to do with caring about students, knowing how to invite students to learn and having a tenacity of spirit that young people want to emulate,” says Jay Casbon, dean of the graduate school. “Matt has all the gifts required to be a very special teacher and leader in education.”

“Even if I don’t teach,” Biondi says, “there is a certain enlightenment that comes with any academic pursuit. And that becomes quite tangible in other realms of life.”

—by Holly Johnson

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