By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, February 7, 2019
A mention of Jason Lezak’s name, and one momentous image most likely comes to mind.
The architect of the game-changing final leg of the 400 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics – you know, the one when he swam down the favorite French team over the final 100 meters to win gold – Lezak has been the definition of teamwork and perseverance his entire career.
But a quick examination of his swimming resume reveals the four-time Olympian, multiple World-Champion and consummate relay performer accomplished much, much more than that win, which is regarded by many as one of the top moments in Olympic history.
Those accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed abroad, either, as Lezak will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame this May in Fort Lauderdale.
Needless to say, just as he did when he was one of the top sprinters in the world, Lezak is the first to admit he didn’t do what he did alone.
“(Before I learned I was being honored) I honestly wasn’t thinking about being inducted, although I knew you had to be retired 5 years to be considered,” said Lezak, who retired from swimming in 2013. “I knew that Mark (Schubert) nominated me, but it just never crossed my mind that I could be chosen.”
Lezak served as Master of Ceremonies at the 2014 induction ceremony when his good friend (and fellow Olympic gold medalist) Tom Malchow was inducted.
“He told me then that I should be ready in 5 years,” Lezak said. “It’s quite an honor.”
A Southern California swimming product, Lezak attended Irvine High School and continued to study at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). In addition to the UCSB Swimming Gauchos, Lezak represented Rose Bowl Aquatics and was a member of the Irvine Novaquatics.
He started his swimming career at age 5, and by the time he was 10, he was participating in Junior Olympic competitions.
During his early teens, Lezak struggled with highs and lows in the sport of swimming. Once he quit playing basketball his sophomore year of high school, he saw big improvements, earning All-America honors his senior year in swimming and water polo.
The real payoff in swimming arrived during his junior year in college, when he placed fifth and sixth at NCAAs in the 50 and 100 freestyle, respectively. After he finished his college eligibility in 1998, his star in swimming began to rise toward Olympic heights.
In the summer of 1998, he won the 100 freestyle at the U.S. National Championships. Two years later, at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Lezak won his first Olympic gold medal as a member of the USA’s 400 medley relay.
He also won a silver medal in the 400 freestyle relay at those same games and soon thereafter became the No. 1-ranked sprinter in the world.
That was the first time since the 400 free was introduced at the 1964 Olympics that the U.S. men failed to win gold at the Olympics, and Lezak took it personally.
“The United States owned that event for more than 30 years, and to lose it was tough for all of us,” he said.
Four years later, the U.S. men fell to the bronze medal, so when the time came again in 2008 in Beijing, he pulled out all the stops to win back the gold for the United States –-and keep Michael Phelps’ 8-gold-medal quest alive.
The oldest male on the U.S. team and a tri-captain at those Games, Lezak stepped into history as the anchor of the 400 freestyle, coming back from a body length behind world-record-holder and eventual 100 freestyle gold medalist Alain Bernard of France over the final 50 meters to reclaim gold.
To this day (and most likely for the rest of his life), Lezak gets asked most about that race and not the 33 other international medals he won in his storied career.
And he’s always happy to talk about it because he is the consummate teammate.
“Everything happened perfectly for that race to end as it did, and it was a team effort. It was more than just me, even though I was the last leg,” said Lezak, who won three other Olympic gold medals in relays.
“We had lost the race in the last two Olympics for the previous six years, and winning gold for my country was my priority.”
Lezak said he doesn’t remember much from most of his races, but he does remember what happened before, during and after that historic world-record-setting race – voted as the “Best Moment” at the 2009 ESPYs.
“I remember talking to myself before the race, telling myself to stay strong and keep my stroke together and that I was going to have to have the best relay start of my life,” he said. “There was a good bit of strategy that went into that final leg of the relay, but I was definitely in the zone.
“If people don’t remember anything else about me or remember me for anything else but that race, I’m OKwith it.”
While the relay swims are something Lezak will never forget, his favorite memory from Beijing – and perhaps in the entirety of his career – was the 100 free individual race. He touched in a tie with Brazilian sprinter Cesar Cielo behind Bernard and Eamon Sullivan of Australia.
Lezak qualified for his fourth Olympics at the 2012 United States Olympic Trials as a member of the 400 freestyle relay team. In London, he helped the U.S. to a silver medal and became the first male swimmer in Olympic history to win four medals in the same event.
In 2009, Jason Lezak represented the United States at the Maccabiah games in Israel, bypassing the World Championships. The decision paid off as he left with four gold medals.
While he was there, he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and was selected to light the flame at the opening ceremonies.
Lezak said he considered retiring after the 2008 Olympics as it became harder and harder to train and adapting the changes in his body in relation to top-level swimming. But he decided to come back for 2012 and was surprised at how well he swam at Trials to make his fourth Olympics.
But after that, he said he knew his days were numbered, and he retired the following year.
Now that he’s been away from competitive swimming for several years – and his three kids are older – he said he’s able to share his experiences with them.
He said he also loves doing the clinics with the small kids he works with and enjoys traveling and speaking about his swimming experiences, perseverance – and of course, his career-defining relay swim.
“I really enjoy inspiring them and seeing their faces light up when they learn something new about swimming,” he said. “I never needed a medal or a record to do what I did. It’s not why I did the things I did with swimming.
“I’m truly humbled by this honor, and I’m so thankful for all the people – coaches, family, friends, teammates – who helped me accomplish what I did. It’s not something you do by yourself, so I share this recognition with all of them.”