Lezak preparing for next challenge in London

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Almost four years have passed since
Jason Lezak became an international star, but he slid into a chair with a green
towel wrapped around his chest knowing there is more work to be done to realize
another Olympics dream.

His comeback in the 400-meter freestyle relay to edge France’s Alain Bernard at
the Beijing Games kept Michael Phelps’ hopes alive for a record eight gold
medals. Since, Lezak has learned to balance fame with focus in his attempt to
earn a fourth Olympics appearance.

Last Saturday, a plastic ice pack was placed around Lezak’s right knee after he
climbed from the pool at the Mizzou Aquatic Center following a second-place
finish in a 50-meter freestyle heat. The Missouri Grand Prix was his first
competitive meet in six months — he finished third in the 50-meter freestyle
and seventh in the 100-meter freestyle — and he wanted to use to experience to
learn more about his progress in advance of the US Olympic Team Trials to be
held June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb.

At age 36, his body has changed from his world-record
46.06-second split in Beijing, but the veteran swimmer is confident in his
speed as he trains for London.

The time since Lezak, Phelps, Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale stunned the
French team and created one of the lasting memories of the Beijing Games has
changed the Irvine, Calif., resident. He has learned to juggle appearances made
possible by the relay victory with work toward remaining one of the world’s
best athletes in the water. He admits he has experienced fatigue from his time
in the spotlight, but lessons learned since returning from China have inspired
him.

“The only thing that changed was that I got a lot busier,” Lezak
said. “I was definitely doing a lot more things. It was a little tiring.
I’ve been trying to balance that. I have training; I have my family; I have two
kids now. I’ve been learning to balance that with the appearances and the swim
meets. It has been tough.”

Lezak’s busy schedule is possible because of one of the best moments in US
swimming history. He trailed Bernard by nearly a body length as the two leaders
made the final turn at the Water Cube on a world-record pace. By that point,
most anticipated a second-place result was the best finish the Americans could
hope for.

“I just don’t think he can do it,” said Rowdy Gaines, an NBC
commentator and three-time gold-medal winner at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, as
Lezak trailed Bernard. “He’s trying to ride that wave as much as
possible.”

Turns out, Lezak had doubts as well. He saw Bernard’s lead as he approached the
wall for the turn. He considered easing the chase and settling for the silver
medal. But, as Weber-Gale recalls the story, Lezak thought to himself,
“Man, this is the Olympics. I’ve got to go for it.”

Lezak, then 32, did go for it. What happened next created a place in Olympics
lore for the oldest man on the US swimming team.

Lezak began his charge with about 25 meters left, when he trailed Bernard by
about half a body length. He churned through the waves, inching closer toward
Bernard with each stroke before beating the muscular Frenchman by a fingertip.
Phelps and Jones screamed. Weber-Gale flexed. Lezak climbed from the pool, and
all four Americans embraced.

“I think he learned that anything is possible, that never to give up at
the end of a race like that,” Weber-Gale said. “He understands that
comebacks are possible and that you can win races at the end. … It’s kind of a
surreal thing, actually. People talk about (the Beijing relay race), of course.
I’ve seen the video of the race. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what
that feels like and what it means. It’s hard to grasp that I was in that. It’s
just kind of an out-of-body experience.”

Said Eddie Reese, US swimming coach at the Beijing Games: “Jason had the
big-time split. He had the catch-the-guy and go-by-the-guy opportunity. There
may not have been anybody else on that team that could have done that.”

The rally taught Lezak how much the United States valued the team’s resilience.
The comeback was captured in countless articles, magazine photos and even an
appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The seven-time Olympic
medalist said he overtook Bernard because he never lost hope.

Still, the time since the Beijing Games has forced Lezak to keep faith in his
talent. Each year has made him evaluate his body and adjust his training. Since
he is almost two decades older than some of his competitors, he searches for
ways to improve his technique while keeping his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame in
shape. 

Beyond the pool, Lezak has managed financial challenges in the past three
years. He was without a corporate endorsement shortly after the Beijing Games,
because a six-figure contract with Nike expired after the company pulled out of
the swimming business following a decision not to compete with Speedo. The
recession also limited Lezak’s income from the motivational speakers circuit,
through which he earns between $10,000 and $20,000 per appearance.

But Lezak gained financial security in the past 14 months. In December 2010, he
signed with Finis, a California-based swim equipment company that has worked
with US swimming. The contract’s details were not disclosed when announced, but
he was reportedly searching for a $200,000 annual deal.

“He’s able to endure in our sport longer than a lot, because he’s got the
relays,” said University of Southern Cal men’s and women’s swimming coach Dave
Salo, who mentored Lezak from 1990 through 2006. “He has always been such
an important relay member of the national team. … He takes a lot of pride in
that. It’s not something to cower from. He endures, because he knows there
aren’t a bunch of 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds coming to take his spot.”

That self-confidence allows Lezak to consider a future in swimming beyond
London. He says he does not know what his goals will be after the Olympics. But
he enjoys competing — he has risen in the sport from a relative unknown before
1998 — and he does not see himself getting slower.

“I don’t know if there’s any reason for me to retire if I’m still enjoying
it,” Lezak said before continuing his training at the Mizzou Aquatic
Center.

Love for a sport that made him an international star is evident as he
approaches the four-year anniversary of a comeback that will be preserved in
Olympics history. A fingertip victory changed Lezak’s life. But his work is not
complete.