Paul Biedermann (7 August, 1986) is a German swimmer and is one of the strongest freestylers in the world at the 200m and 400m distances.
Biedermann’s first major international success came at the 2005 European Championships (SC) in Trieste, where he won a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle. Two years later at the European SC Championships in Debrecen, he improved on this performance with a silver medal, while also garnering a silver in the 200m freestyle event. His improvement continued into 2008, with victories in the 200m at the European Championships (LC) in Eindhoven, and in the 400m at the European SC Championships in Rijeka. But it was at the FINA World Cup meet in Berlin that he made his first entry into the history books, breaking the 200m SC world record with a time of 1:40.83. Ian Thorpe’s record had stood for over 8 years.
However, it was 2009 that proved to be Biedermann’s watershed year, thrusting him into the spotlight of international swimming. At the World Championships in Rome, he first won the 400m, eclipsing Ian Thorpe’s seven-year-old record with a time of 3:40.07. Two days later in the 200m freestyle, he inflicted Michael Phelps’s first major international defeat in four years, leaving him more than a second behind in second place, and bettering his world record by almost a second. Just over three months later he broke his own 200m SC world record at the FINA World Cup in Berlin, with a time of 1:39.37, a day after setting a new 400m world mark in the SC with a time of 3:32.77, breaking a record that had stood for over seven years. For his phenomenal achievements, Biedermann was named European Swimmer of the Year and German Sportsman of the Year.
Biedermann’s victories in 2009 were at the centre of the hi-tech swimsuit furore, but he continued to prove his mettle in the new post-polyurethane, textile suit era with a string of impressive performances in 2010. At the European championships in Budapest, he won gold in the 200m freestyle and a silver (by the narrowest of margins) in the 400m, and in the European SC Championships in Eindhoven, flipped these results, winning gold in 400m freestyle and silver in 200m. He capped another impressive year by winning the 400m freestyle gold medal at the World SC Championships in Dubai.
At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Biedermann won bronze medals in his two signature events (200m, 400m freestyle), while also picking up another third-place medal as the anchor leg in Germany’s 4x100m medley relay team.
Paul Biedermann will always be known as the swimmer that ended Michael Phelps’ four-year winning streak at the top. At first blush this would seem an accolade that any aspirant sportsman would strive for – and it most certainly is – but it comes with its curses as well as its blessings. After his incredible record-breaking 200m freestyle victory in Rome at the 2009 World Championships, Biedermann was confronted with “suit vs. swimmer” headlines and disgruntled reactions by coaches and the swimming world at large. It was a real test of his character. And he passed it, with flying colours.
Thanks to his Teutonic background, Biedermann is measured, honest, and direct. He earned credit by saying that the X-Glide made him faster – just as it helped countless others who broke records – and was buttressed by Phelps’ acknowledgement that he swam a great race, as well as by Ian Thorpe’s “it’s the swimmer as well as the suit” message that followed his 400m record-breaking triumph two days prior. The experience certainly changed Biedermann’s life, but it didn’t change him – he is still the same driven, down-to-earth individual that works hard, strives to succeed, and takes whatever life deals him along the way. And while Thorpe was his role model when he was younger, his admiration is reserved for those who have risen above adversity, those who don’t avoid their misfortune, but who rise above it and overcome their tragedy. People like Matthias Steiner, a weightlifter who carried a photo of his wife on to the podium to receive his gold medal in Beijing, a wife that had died in a road accident a year previously.
Born in Halle, Biedermann’s first four years were lived in the former East Germany until its incorporation into the new Germany in 1990, and his first training experiences took place in a mouldy pool that he reflects “built character”. In June 2010 he was proud to help lay the cornerstone for a new pool facility in the hometown that is still his base and training centre.
Despite his fame – or perhaps because of it, given his nature – Supermann, as Paul is known since his Rome heroics, works actively for a variety of charitable causes: he auctioned off the hi-tech swimsuit that he wore in his victory over Phelps, donating the €10.000 proceeds to the Ein Herz für Kinder (A Heart for Children) charity, which assists children in need across the world; he is the face of the Sport baut Brücken (Sport Builds Bridges) movement in the Saxony-Anhalt region, helping to integrate the long-term unemployed into social networks by taking them on as volunteers in sports associations; and he gives regular swimming clinics to children and young swimmers.
Among his friends and companions are girlfriend Britta Steffen, world record holder in the 50m and 100m freestyle – like Biedermann, she captured these titles in Rome – and Michael Shumacher, who he prefers to talk with about life rather than sport. He remains very close to his family, crediting his mother’s support as one of the primary reasons he has accomplished what he has, and taking every opportunity to go fishing with his father, a pastime they both cherish as an opportunity to relax and – when possible – be together. On the flip side of the relaxation coin, he also enjoys ice hockey – because it’s fast and physical – and takes his musical pleasure with heavy metal groups such as Ramstein.