By Scott McDonald//Red Line Editorial | Thursday, June 27, 2019
Hear the name Jason Lezak, and most people will think back to the relay.
In one of the most iconic swims of all time, Lezak’s blazing anchor leg in the 4x100-meter freestyle completed a thrilling U.S. comeback at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008. His final time of 46.06 seconds marked the fastest in history at the time, and it secured not only the gold medal and a new world record, but it also, vitally, kept teammate Michael Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals alive.
That performance lives on as a fitting legacy for Lezak, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame last month, and yet it only scratches the surface of his accomplished career.
In four Olympic Games, Lezak won eight medals, four of them gold. He added five more medals (three gold) at the long course world championships. And while the Southern California native made his name — and won most of his medals — swimming in relays, his next race in Beijing led to his lone individual medal, and it’s a memory he still remembers vividly.
“Typically when I swim I don’t remember much, but I remember a lot about the 4x100 relay,” Lezak said. “I also remember the lead up to the 100.”
It was a quick turnaround. One day after his career-defining relay race, Lezak was scheduled to swim in the preliminary round of the individual 100-meter freestyle.
This was an important one for Lezak. Four years earlier, he came into the Athens Games with the fastest time in the world but “took the 2004 prelims easy,” he said, an approach that backfired when he finished one-tenth of a second away from the semifinals.
“I watched the guy win the finals in the same time I swam at the trials,” said Lezak, who won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 48.17 seconds, the same time that Pieter van den Hoogenband from the Netherlands swam to win gold in Athens.
Seeking redemption in Beijing, Lezak faced a new obstacle: age.
At 32 years old, Lezak found his body didn’t recover as quickly as when he was younger, and that was a problem after the mentally and physically draining relay performance.
“I did my best to recover, but unfortunately I was so pumped up from the relay that I had a hard time sleeping with all the adrenaline,” Lezak said. “I had a bad night of sleep and woke up not recovered at all.”
Arriving at the Water Cube on Tuesday Aug. 12, facing little recovery and the sour memory from Athens, Lezak mentally placed himself back at his home pool in California, with no one watching. Then he went out and posted the 11th fastest time overall to make the semifinals. One day later, he finished third in his semifinal to move on to the finals.
The final race, on Aug. 14, was a who’s who of the sport’s top stars at the time. Lezak, lining up in lane seven, cleared his mind, blocked out the crowd and didn’t think about who was going to be in the pool with him.
“I convinced myself I was in my home pool and felt absolutely amazing, and that my body felt like I did everything I needed to do to get ready,” Lezak said. “On the blocks I didn’t think I felt terrible. I didn’t think about 1 billion people watching or that seven of the best swimmers in the world were next to me.”
Lezak breathed to the right, which meant he had the swimmers in the middle lanes in his sights during the opening 50 meters.
“I went really hard the first 50, but I knew they would go fast,” Lezak remembered. “I saw them in the lead and they were out fast.”
On the last 50, Lezak said he almost considered breathing left to see where France’s Alain Bernard and Australia’s Eamon Sullivan were, but he stuck to his regimen and breathed right, keeping an eye on Brazil’s Cesar Cielo Filho, who was also streaking fast in lane eight.
“I knew I was behind them on my left, and I could only see Cielo in eight, so I focused on trying to beat him,” Lezak said. “He was holding on really strong and I felt I needed to dig down and go as hard as I can.”
Lezak and Cielo both touched in 47.67 seconds, tying for third and each winning bronze medals. Sullivan touched second for silver. Bernard, who lost the lead in that relay to Lezak just days earlier, won gold.
Now long since retired from competitive swimming, Lezak is working as the general manager of the Cali Condors of the International Swimming League that’s set to launch this fall. He also serves as an ambassador for USA Swimming Foundation and travels the country and the world to work swim clinics.
And yet all these years later, his performance in the relay in Beijing still evokes strong memories from fans. For Lezak, the 100 free evokes similar feelings.
“It’s not about the color of medal but how hard I had to work and come back to do that,” Lezak said. “Being able to come back at 32 when most people didn’t believe in me and thinking I would not be able to do it.”
Lezak closed out the Beijing Games with one more gold medal, this time in the 4x100 medley, which was also the race that clinched Phelps’ record eighth gold medal (not to mention another world record). He then went on to compete in one more Olympics, winning a silver medal in the 4x100 free in London.
Looking back now, Lezak said he’s proud to be a part of two relay teams that helped Phelps win eight gold medals in Beijing, and that the hall of fame was an honor he didn’t seek out when he began competing as a youngster and then at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“It’s a huge honor,” Lezak said of his recent induction. “When I first started out, my dream was to win an Olympic gold medal. This shows my longevity in the sport, and I’m proud to come back and do things people didn’t think I could do.”
Scott McDonald is a writer from Houston who has covered sports for various outlets since 1998. He is a freelance contributor to USA Swimming on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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