By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
We knew the day would come. We knew that, one day, the man, myth, and legend known as Jason Lezak would hang up his goggles, cap, and suit, and call it a career. But for years, that day didn’t come. With each race and each passing season, we scanned heat sheets and pool decks, hoping we’d see Lezak’s larger-than-life presence walking amongst swimmers half his age, battling younger competitors, and, more often than not, winning.
Unfortunately, two weeks ago, Jason Lezak announced his retirement. Thousands of swim fans flocked to social media to applaud Lezak’s remarkable career, one that involved countless races, sprint events, and – yes – relay anchors. While Lezak’s career was about more than just one famous 400m freestyle relay anchor, that is how he will be remembered. His career will be remembered by many as “The Anchor,” that miraculous moment in Beijing that kept alive Michael Phelps’ eight gold medal hunt, upset the heavily favored French squad, and, when all looked lost, proved the grit of a 32-year-old man who fought, clawed, and scratched towards the wall to win.
Lezak’s legacy, however, is about much more than “The Anchor.” Though Lezak provided the most exciting moment in the past three decades of Olympic swimming, it wasn’t just the sheer physicality of the performance that made it so legendary. Yes, he swam the fastest split in history. Yes, he kept alive Phelps’ dream. Yes, he beat the favored French. But, somehow, if you take Jason Lezak out of that anchor leg and replace him with another swimmer, another face, another anchor, for some reason, “The Anchor” moment seems less… legendary.
Jason Lezak -- his persona, his background, and his story -- made it legendary.
This was a man who, a few years prior, was labeled by a teammate as a “professional relay swimmer.” That phrase was not said endearingly. This was a man who, as Casey Barrett pointed out in this great article, was previously thrown off his collegiate team for “poor attitude and sportsmanship.” (Who later was re-enlisted on his team and had a successful NCAA career.) This was a man who had countless disappointing swims, who knew the agony of defeat, who was a late-bloomer to the scene of elite competitive swimming.
“In 1996, I went to Trials and I got second to last,” Lezak once told me. “At that point, I thought I was pretty far from making the team.”
Two years later, Jason Lezak won his first-ever national championship. But it took him ten more years of racing, honing, tweaking, and training (mostly by himself) near the mountains in Pasadena before he found himself glaring down Alain Bernard and the French in 2008.
When Jason Lezak stepped up to those Beijing blocks, staring down a seemingly infinite amount of water and what was perceived as an insurmountable deficit, no one thought he would do it. Lezak himself thought while swimming, “This is impossible.” I remember watching the TV, sighing, “Oh man, it’s over.” But you know the rest of the story. Jason Lezak out-touched the French by eight one-hundredths of a second – a blink of the eye, a flick of the wrist. Like thousands of others, I once asked Jason to take me back through that particular race, a story he’s re-told countless times, over dinner, at motivational talks, to swimmers, coaches, friends, peers, and strangers:
“Somehow, I don’t know where it came from, I got another surge of adrenaline,” Lezak said.
OK, maybe it was an unexplainable surge of adrenaline. Not sure I buy that, though. What I believe is that, ten years after winning his first national championship, 32-year-old Jason Lezak simply had the experience and knew how to race.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: Do you know what Jason Lezak’s relay exchange split was? .04. That’s four one-hundredths of a second. That means he was five one-hundredths of a second away from disqualifying the entire relay.
Now think how many relay exchanges Jason Lezak, the “professional relay swimmer,” practiced over his career to achieve that near-perfect relay exchange. Think how many anchor legs he mentally rehearsed. At 32-years-old, think how many relays, starts, and dives into the water Jason Lezak took over his career. I would argue that “The Anchor” didn’t come down to the finish. With that nearly-perfect relay exchange, “The Anchor” was not won at the end of the race by some strange, unexplained, mysterious surge of adrenaline, but at the beginning of the race from three decades of training and swimming experience.
Yes, Jason Lezak’s career will probably be defined by “The Anchor.” But what did that now legendary moment really represent?
It represented countless, thousands, millions, infinite amounts of moments in practice, at meets, in training, honing, refining, tweaking, reworking, breaking down, building up, and analyzing. It represented a career of an immeasurable woven-together moments that culminated into one perfect relay anchor, a flawless swim that happened to result in an Olympic gold medal.
“I didn’t make my first Olympic team until I was 24,” Jason Lezak told me.
Think about that.
Think about the sheer amount of self-sacrifice it takes for a man to have that confidence, to keep going in a sport where very little money is offered to post-graduates, where very few professional opportunities are available once you leave college. At 32-years-old, Jason Lezak wasn’t only still going. He was chasing perfection.
“No one understands how hard this was for my wife and I,” Jason Lezak said last summer, minutes after qualifying for the Olympic Games at the age of 36. “I actually kind of visualized some things from the past to help me get to the wall.” After Lezak punched his ticket to London for what would be his final Olympics, I wondered about that quote. What did he envision, you ask? We’ll probably never know. Most likely it involved three decades of swim practices. Three decades of set-back and victory. Three decades of obstacles, and then overcoming them.
Jason Lezak’s legacy might be one singular, great race, but we should remember why that race has become so mythical and legendary. Lezak embodied what we all hope to achieve with our own lives: a continued improvement, a never-ending pursuit, and hope. Hope that one day, even if we’re “too old” and had our share of setbacks, we can one day be triumphant. Ultimately, when I reflect on the career of Jason Lezak, of course, I remember that relay. But I also remember these words he told me while shaking my hand one day after sitting for an interview, before heading to warm-up for yet another finals session:
“Never give up on your dreams,” Lezak told me.
And then the man, myth, and legend walked away, and began to stretch.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him at @MikeLGustafson.