13th Anniversary of the Jason Lezak Anchor For The Ages: Reliving the Legendary Swim From Beijing Olympics (Video)

Jason Lezak
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

13th Anniversary of the Jason Lezak Anchor For The Ages: Reliving the Legendary Swim From Beijing Olympics

When Jason Lezak entered the water for the United States on the anchor leg of the United States’ 400 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the race was seemingly over. Lezak trailed Frenchman Alain Bernard by a body length and overcoming that deficit appeared impossible. But Lezak, behind the greatest anchor leg in history, gradually reeled in Bernard to give the United States an improbable gold medal. Today marks the 13th anniversary of his comeback swim.

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History will remember Jason Lezak as an accomplished sprint freestyler, one of the better produced in those events over the past few decades. He’ll be remembered as an individual Olympic medalist, a lengthy journey leading the native Southern Californian to that status. He’ll also be remembered for a shortfall on the Olympic stage, the Athens Games of 2004 hardly memorable.

More than anything, though, Lezak will be remembered for what he managed to accomplish in less than 47 seconds on the morning of August 11, 2008. Putting together what is inarguably the greatest relay performance in the history of the sport, Lezak carried the United States to the gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay. It sounds so simple. It was anything but an easy task.

At the Olympics in Sydney, Lezak was supposed to be part of a 400 freestyle relay which maintained the United States’ legacy in the event. Never before had the U.S., the dominant swim nation in the world, lost the event at an Olympic Games in which it competed. It was perfect, 7-for-7. Claiming gold medal No. 8 was just a formality, right? Wrong.

Racing against an Australian quartet fueled by 17,000 spectators cheering on the home team, the American streak came to a sudden and jolting halt. As anchormen Ian Thorpe and Gary Hall Jr. approached the wall for the finish, the outcome remained in doubt. But when the final result flashed onto the scoreboard, there it was: Gold for Australia, and the end of American supremacy.

Lezak managed a gold medal in Sydney in the 400 medley relay, a reward for swimming the freestyle leg of the United States’ preliminary team. However, Olympic pain again struck four years later. Again, Lezak was able to win gold in the 400 medley relay, this time handling the anchor leg for the United States in the championship final. But what preceded that success was difficult to swallow.

Early in the meet, the United States watched its chance of regaining the 400 freestyle relay title die a painful death. A horrid leadoff leg by Ian Crocker buried the U.S. from the start and while the middle legs were solid, Lezak was passed in the final meters for the silver medal by the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband. The United States, in Lezak’s two Olympic appearances in the event, had gone from perfect to silver to bronze.

And the worst was still to come.

Having set the American record in the 100 freestyle at the United States Olympic Trials in Long Beach, California, Lezak was among the top medal contenders in Athens. If he couldn’t stay with van den Hoogenband, the reigning champion and world-record holder, he surely would get in for the silver or bronze. Instead, Lezak bombed completely, unable to advance beyond the preliminaries. It was akin to Tiger Woods – at the top of his game – firing rounds of 83-84 at the Masters and missing the cut by an abysmal margin.

Lezak had no one to blame but himself. There was no illness to cite, nor a botched start or turn. Lezak simply misjudged the swim, thinking he could ease off the accelerator and still cruise into the semifinal round. If there is a place to not make that kind of error, it’s at the Olympic Games.

“I just didn’t swim my race smart, and I paid for it,” said Lezak, stating the obvious.

By the time the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were ready to unfold, Lezak had overcome the disappointments of Athens. He finished fourth in the 100 freestyle at the 2005 World Championships and placed fifth in the 100 freestyle at the 2007 World Championships. Along the way, there were additional gold medals in relay duty, including triumphs in the 400 free relay at each of the aforementioned World Champs. In part due to Lezak, the United States was on the cusp of regaining Olympic glory in an event it once owned.

Despite the United States’ recent success in international action, the road to Olympic redemption was not going to be free of obstacles. Looming largely – both figuratively and literally – was France. Not only had the French posted impressive times throughout the year, they went into the final with what was supposed to be a trump card in anchor Alain Bernard. From a muscular standpoint, Bernard could have doubled for the Incredible Hulk, and he was also the world-record holder in the 100 freestyle. If he had the lead going into the final leg, the race was over.

So confident was Bernard that he engaged in some trash-talking in the days leading up to the 400 freestyle relay. Of an impending matchup with the Americans, Bernard didn’t mince words.

“The Americans?” Bernard asked rhetorically. “We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”

Not surprisingly, the French commentary didn’t sit well in the American camp. The quartet of Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Lezak used the foreign bravado as motivation. For Phelps, it was a common strategy. For years, Phelps used slights – perceived or otherwise – to ignite his competitive fire. Now, he was sharing that tactic with teammates.

The Water Cube was electric as the relay finalists were introduced just before the final and the United States used that energy to bolt to the lead at the midway point. While Phelps led off with an American-record performance, Weber-Gale was equally strong. That tandem provided the U.S. with a cushion of .43 over France. It was an advantage which quickly disappeared. With Frenchman Fred Bousquet splitting 46.63 on the third leg, to the 47.65 of Jones, France had turned its deficit into a lead of .59. And with Bernard on the end of the French relay, few thought Lezak would get the job done. That group included Lezak himself.

“The thought really entered my mind for a split second,” Lezak said. “There’s no way.”

More than a half-second after Bernard entered the water, Lezak flew off the blocks. He flailed through the water like had never done before, producing a superb first lap. Yet, as Bernard and Lezak flipped for the final 50 meters home, Lezak still trailed by a noticeable margin. With 25 meters left, Lezak was still noticeably behind. But that’s when the race started to change.

In a tactical error, Bernard was racing on the left side of his lane. That decision was a faulty one as it allowed Lezak, swimming on the right side of his lane, to get a draft off the Frenchman. With each stroke, Lezak cut into the lead of Bernard and a slam-dunk victory for France became more and more in doubt. Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines, the NBC duo calling the swimming action, had to reverse field on their call that Lezak simply couldn’t pull off such a huge comeback. Then again, no one in the venue thought Lezak could track down Bernard. Well…

“I was just thinking to myself, if there’s anyone on this team or in the world that is going to do it, it was going to be Jason,” Weber-Gale said.

With a few meters to go, it still appeared France would earn the gold medal. But as Bernard and Lezak lunged for the wall and stretched their arms out to activate the touchpad, it was Lezak who got there first. Thanks to an epic anchor leg, officially in the books at 46.06, the United States prevailed by eight hundredths of a second. The American team – the relay which won and teammates in the athletes’ section of the stands – erupted. Phelps flexed on deck, hugs were shared and Lezak was fondly patted on the head. In the adjacent lane, Bernard was crestfallen.

No one had ever come close to splitting 46.06 before, and Lezak needed every bit of that swim to send the Americans to the top step of the medals podium. In the United States, where swimming is generally an afterthought on the sporting landscape, the victory became one of the biggest stories of the day. It was only the second final of eight for Phelps during his quest to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single Olympiad, but it turned out to be a major moment in Phelps’ history-making week.

“It would have to be in the unbelievable category,” said United States head coach Eddie Reese, regarded as one of the world’s best in his profession. “That’s the biggest word I know. It had to be the best ever and it was the best ever. That’s the kind of anchor you dream of. When you put the world-record holder in on the end of a relay and you go into the pool behind him, the chance of you beating him is slim and none. There’s never been (something like that) in my memory – not running down somebody that holds a world record and that’s on their game. That was incredible.”

Part of the reason for Lezak’s comeback was the mentality of atoning for his previous two Olympic experiences in the 400 freestyle relay. He looked at his relay leg in parts, rather than as an overwhelming chore. He needed to chisel away, which is exactly how his leg unfolded. Basically, Lezak was perfect and used all 100 of his meters to come out on top.

“I started thinking, ‘This guy is pretty far ahead, almost a body length. But I’m not going to give up. This is doable,’” Lezak said in analyzing the race. “I really never think at all. My best races, I’ve never remembered. Today, I was talking and talking to myself.”

Just how remarkable was Lezak’s tracking down of Bernard? Three days after the final of the 400 freestyle relay, Bernard recovered from his emotional devastation to win the gold medal in the 100 freestyle. Some argue that Bernard choked under the pressure of anchoring his country at a critical time. But a choke artist does not come back and flourish like Bernard did in the 100 free, which is widely considered the blue-ribbon event in the sport.

No, Lezak simply rose to the occasion like no relay swimmer before him, or since. The 400 freestyle relay had been an albatross, and Lezak competed with the desire to rid himself of the burden of 2000 and 2004. Individually, he also walked away with a jubilant feeling. While Bernard won the gold medal, Lezak earned the first solo medal of his Olympic career, sharing the bronze medal in the 100 free with Brazil’s Cesar Cielo.

“I was obviously shooting for the gold medal, but just to win any medal, it feels really good,” Lezak said. “It feels like everything I’ve done over my career has paid off. The huge mistake I made four years ago by taking the preliminaries lightly has been eating at me. For me to go out there and accomplish that medal, I’m really excited. … Obviously it doesn’t top the relay from the other night, but it’s something that has really pushed me to swim the last four years.”

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Lezak followed his heroics at the Beijing Games by narrowly qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London. While he didn’t get the chance to race in another championship final, Lezak competed during the preliminaries of the 400 freestyle relay. When the United States won the silver medal in the final, Lezak earned the last of his eight Olympic medals. Ironically, it was France which captured the gold medal when Yannick Agnel channeled his inner Lezak and recorded a come-from-behind victory in the closing meters.

Shortly after the London Games, Lezak announced his retirement. As he bid farewell to the sport, Lezak fondly recalled the most special moment of his career, and perhaps the greatest race in swimming history.

“No matter how my individual performances went at Worlds, Olympics, and so on, I always wanted to step up on relays for the team and our country,” he said. “The 400 free relay was one of the greatest moments of my career. I was a part of six consecutive years (1999-2004) of losing that relay at international competitions after the USA had never lost before, which included two Olympics. It felt great to bring the title back to the USA.”

Jason Lezak was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2019.

88 comments

  1. Tony Mosca

    The look on Bernard’s face when Jason smoked him is priceless! Greatest moment in USA Swimming History IMO.

  2. Brent Fletcher

    My favorite race ever. The commentary helped this one too 🙂

  3. Pat Kennedy

    Without a doubt, one of the greatest swims of all time.

  4. Gabe Wheeler

    Yall should find the Bud Greenspan documentary about him and post that

  5. Jim Avery

    The race will live on for many generations

  6. Diane Pavelin

    Actually, it might be a tie between him and Bruce Hayes anchor against Michael Gross in the 800 free relay at the 1984 Olympics.

    • Bjorn Samson

      Ironic you mention this relay as I saw an interview with Hayes on the 25th anniversary in 2009 and there was a lot of comparison. Unlike Bernard though, Gross was a class act.

  7. Jody Dykes

    I remember watching it live and watching this again is just as exciting!

  8. Otto Blanco

    “The Americans?” Bernard asked rhetorically. “We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.” ??

  9. John Ian Bobbitt

    Wow… How do you double a former swimmers heart rate in 8 seconds while he’s in his car? Have him watch a replay of an Olympic freestyle relay.

    Geez…i had to pull over and catch my breath.

  10. avatar
    edwin pyle

    Super swim by an elder..34? And Jason’s split was 1.3 secs faster than his 3rd place 100 free..and, if I recall his relay start was down to 1/100 per electronic sensors?? I still wonder about drafting. Yes, helped…but only that last 25m …

  11. avatar
    Troyy

    I prefer the fastest textitle relay split ever by Duncan Scott even if the moment wasn’t as important.

  12. Ja Bounce

    Body-length behind on exchange… Rowdy Gaines about see see FAST ACTING KARMA bite him… Michael Phelps CUSSING (LOL)! Storke count per 50’s 30-34!!! I still get Chicken Skin (aka Goosebumps) while watching this!

  13. Dani Daniels

    Honestly, I think it’s the greatest moment in swimming ever.

  14. Rich Davis

    No doubt about it. And Phelps owes him big time. ??? 8 for 8.

  15. Bill Thompson

    Showed this footage to age groupers so many times. Greatest anchor.

  16. Bob O

    To watch it live was one of the greatest sports memories of my life.

  17. Wendy Griffin

    My favorite race to watch over and over (well, my fav that doesn’t have my son in it lol)

    • Craig Gonzales

      Grant Hayball I still get goosebumps watching that last 25 meters haha

  18. Maliha Hashmi

    Can watch this over and over again❤️❤️❤️❤️

  19. Pablo Valedon

    The single most exciting and greatest relay anchor of all time!!??‍♂️?‍♀️!

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Barring Shirley Babashoff and teammates, 1976, from the realms of the ‘impossible’ but with much more at stake than pride … (there are a few others contenders down the decades, too 🙂

    • Kate Hauck

      Pablo Valedon nah. Last year . Great Britain . Duncan Scott .

    • Pablo Valedon

      Kate Hauck nope not a chance. There was lot more at stake and the French where talking smack. Be sides the anchor leg for France was suppose to be fast than Jason Lezak! His swim kept Phelps on track to 8 Gold medals.

  20. Diane Pavelin

    Bruce Hayes vs. Michael Gross (the “Albertross”) in the 1984 800 Free Relay. The US wasn’t favored to win, and he pulled it out.

  21. Ildiko Morris

    I saw that race about 100 times and still on pins and needles at the last lap. It was phenomenal

  22. Jonelle Schmidt

    This clip missed most of the last leg. And we all know what happened. Wtf

  23. Rich Davis

    Not enough can be said about this swim. Hands down the greatest relay leg ever.

    • Ronald Jacobsen

      Rich Davis amen brother. Thy most exciting relay I’ve ever seen.

    • Rich Davis

      The 2000 4×100 free where Thorpe overhauled Hall is a close second.

  24. Pat Kennedy

    One of the greatest relay swims of all time.

  25. Jonelle Schmidt

    This didn’t show the whole race. Missed the best part. It was great race though

  26. Jacob Jensen

    David Skamriis Var det noget med du faldt i søvn lige inden starten lød?

  27. Sandy Pickering Drake

    Never gets old. Leaning forward, yelling, chills……..each and every time I watch it.

  28. Luke Harper

    Shayne Harper this was the relay leg I was talking about the other day.

  29. avatar
    KRW

    The 84 800 free relay comes close but there are always 4 on the relay. They all deserve to be honored. Lezak’s performance was perfect, and had to be. Congrats to Jason on his ISOF induction. Deserved.

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