Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, January 16. WHEN future generations talk about the swimming competition at the 2008 Olympics, two names will definitely be a part of the conversation: Michael Phelps and Jason Lezak.
Phelps' eight golds will be forever remembered as the greatest Olympic feat in history, while Lezak's place in history was cemented by that remarkable anchor leg on the 400 freestyle relay that put the title back in American possession.
Lezak, who announced his retirement yesterday according to an article in the Orange County Register, has accomplished many things in his 13-year elite swimming career beyond that 46-second sprint. It's understandable that even the most diehard swimming fan would have a hard time getting past that relay swim to complete a list of the southern Californian's top swims.
And what a list it is. If you look through the results of the 400 freestyle relay from the 1999 Pan Pacific championships through the 2012 Olympics, you will find Lezak's name on every American roster (with the exception of the 2009 world championships), giving him one of the longest -- if not the longest -- continuous swimming careers among American swimmers.
Let's not forget about his four Olympic appearances, something only Phelps has done among male American swimmers. Making two Olympic teams is tough enough in the United States; having your name appear on four Olympic rosters not only epitomizes talent but tenacity. Think about that for a minute: Jason Lezak was one of the United States' fastest 100 freestylers through four Olympic Games. Matt Biondi, Rowdy Gaines and Gary Hall Jr. didn't have that kind of longevity in the event.
Lezak grew up in Irvine, Calif., and stories from his former coach Dave Salo indicate that Lezak was not a hard worker, and at various points in his teenage and young adult years he was kicked off teams for not showing up to workout. That all changed when he made his first international team at the 1999 Pan Pacific championships. With the Olympics on his mind, suddenly Lezak started putting in the work necessary, and it would pay off with four medals in the relay.
As many of his teammates entered and left the sport, Lezak was always there, taking a lane in world championship, Pan Pacific and Olympic finals. Though Lezak was suddenly the subject of many newscasts, newspaper headlines and commentaries after that fateful race in the 2008 Olympics, his star dimmed in the public eye, at least when cast in the shadow of Phelps' feat in Beijing. Lezak captured the world's attention during the Olympics, but it took a long time for sponsors to recognize that talent.
Lezak continued to train alone at the Rose Bowl pool in Pasadena, crafting ways to get faster and stronger as he approached his mid-30s. Even as young upstarts began to appear in the pool, Lezak was always there, fighting for a chance to represent the United States. He appeared at the world championships four times, opting out of the 2009 meet for an appearance at the Maccabiah Games to celebrate his Jewish heritage. Had he appeared in Rome in 2009, he would have been the second male American to compete in five world championships, behind Phelps' six appearances.
Those who have been following swimming for the past decade have automatically expected to see Jason Lezak racing in a national final, and it will feel strange to not have him racing at this summer's world championship trials.
"I just want to be able to relax and enjoy the kids to the fullest," Lezak told Dan Albano of the Register, a nod to his two sons, Ryan and Blake. It appears Lezak isn't completely leaving the athletic arena, having released a new DVD featuring the exercises he used to be one of the fastest men in the pool.
Godspeed, Jason Lezak.
A walk through Lezak's three championship final appearances in the 400 free relay at the Olympics: