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Saturday, May 5, 2012
Sierra Canyon lands Olympic gold medalist as swim coach

By Tim Haddock

It’s not that often an Olympic gold medalist decides to coach and teach high school students. But that’s exactly what is happening at Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth.

Matt Biondi, who won five gold medals in swimming in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, will be the swim coach and a math teacher at Sierra Canyon starting in the fall.

It would be like Kerri Strugg deciding to coach a gymnastics team at Alemany or Carl Lewis becoming the track coach at Crespi. Magic Johnson might as well be the basketball coach at Harvard-Westlake.

Landing a coach of Biondi’s caliber and reputation is unheard of. Yet many of the swimmers at Sierra Canyon haven’t heard of Biondi or know much about his Olympic career.

To put it in perspective, he was the Michael Phelps of his day. He went to the 1988 Olympics trying to match the mark set by Mark Sptiz and win seven gold medals in one Summer Games. He came up a little short, with five gold medals, a silver medal and a bronze medal.

By the end of his Olympic career – he went to the 1984 and 1992 Summer Games as well – he won a record 11 medals and set four world records.

For the past 11 years, he has been the swim and water polo coach at a school on the big island of Hawaii. He taught math at Parker School and says he was happy raising his family and living in the Hawaiian Islands.

The kids on his swim teams and water polo teams at Parker didn’t know him for his Olympic career. He was their swim coach.

“They don’t really know what I did,” Biondi said. “Some of them figure it out, relating to someone like Michael Phelps. You can never be a hero in your own hometown. Once we start rolling and we have homework assignments and have practices, all that stuff goes out the window.”

He imagines once he starts coaching at Sierra Canyon, it will play out the same.

Shayne Eisenman, a junior on the Sierra Canyon girls swim team, said her parents have been telling her about Biondi’s Olympic career. She is still learning about who he is and knows the event he swam in the Olympics.

“My mom and dad told me a lot about him,” said Eisenman, who swims the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle. “He’s been swimming a lot of events that I swim currently. I am very excited to experience what he knows and how he can help me.”

From Seoul to Chatsworth

The excitement level at Sierra Canyon is definitely high. So how did an Olympic gold medalist end up as a math teacher and high school swim coach? Island fever is partly to blame. Sibling rivalry also played a factor.

Biondi said Los Angeles was the last place he thought he would end up. He started thinking about leaving Hawaii about five years, about the same time his third child was born. It wasn’t until last year that he seriously began exploring teaching at a school on the mainland.

“I ended up interviewing with 19 schools, either in person or over the phone,” Biondi said. “Of those 19, I picked my top five, two in Northern California, two in the LA area and one in San Diego. I visited one school a day over my spring break.”

Sierra Canyon had the most to offer, Biondi said. He liked the cost of living around the area. He liked the subjects he was going to be able to teach at Sierra Canyon. He liked the possibility of putting together a water polo team and the plans for a pool on campus.

“I kept trying to get the puzzle to fit up in Northern California,” Biondi said. “It’s where I went to school in Berkeley and it’s where my parents are. In the back of my mind, I kept coming back to Sierra Canyon. I just kept coming up No. 1 on the list. I called them up and said I’m coming.”

Once he made his decision, Biondi knew what to expect from the community, especially the parents and students at Sierra Canyon.

“There are a lot of people who are excellent at what they do, but I have a seal of approval,” Biondi said. “I have the credential to prove that I am the real deal. Which is not to say other people don’t have those same qualities; they don’t have that universal symbol of the five rings.”

Bitten by the teaching bug

While preparing for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Biondi started on the motivational speaking circuit. He spent nearly 12 years working for sports marketing companies, advertising firms and making public speaking and promotional appearances.

“I found myself in the motivational business but very unmotivated and very unsatisfied,” he said.

His brother was a teacher and Biondi said he was able to live vicariously through him. He went back to school and earned a Masters of education degree from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon.

“In 2001, sent out a bunch of resumes and got hired here at Parker School,” Biondi said. “I started teaching in the fall of 2001. I’ve been teaching math and coaching swimming and water polo here ever since.”

He said he loved living in Hawaii. He and his wife raised their three kids on the big island. He lived in a town with three traffic lights and had a four-minute commute to work. He quipped that if there was traffic, it would take him six minutes to get to work. It will be a lot different living and working in the San Fernando Valley. But he is looking forward to continuing his teaching career in Southern California.

“I have an appreciation for what it is to invest and struggle and to overcome and to carry that into the rest of their lives,” Biondi said. “It is an incredibly important and enriching profession.”