Why Jason Lezak Did Not Give In to His Body’s Want to Give Out

Photo Courtesy: Julia Cunningham

By Julia Cunningham, Swimming World College Intern

There have been days when I’ll look at the set and give up on practice before I even jump in the pool. Why is that? What is the point of even showing up to the pool if I’m not there with the 100 percent belief that I am there to improve?

Consider the scenario where I know how badly the 200 fly is going to hurt, so I tense up before every race and have to give myself a pep talk just to walk behind the blocks. Shouldn’t I automatically be pumped to swim my best event? I’ve certainly done it enough times. Why is it that we are our worst enemies when it comes to putting yourself out there and just racing?

A positive mindset is something to which I attribute almost all of my swimming success. When I was younger, I never understood why my dad was always asking me how I felt about my races, especially when we both knew I had just swam poorly. “I don’t care. I wasn’t trying anyway.” He wasn’t trying to patronize me, I now realize. He wanted me to analyze my races. Rather than getting caught up on each bad race, I had to figure out what I did wrong and improve on it next time. To me, that is mindset.

There is a direct relationship between what you’re thinking before a race, and how the scoreboard reads by the end. So how do you figure out how to control that link?   

Turn Can’t Into Can

In 2008, swimming next to the French 4×100 freestyle relay in Beijing, Jason Lezak almost gave up. “The thought really entered my mind for a split second,” Lezak told a reporter from ESPN. “There’s no way.” Instead, Lezak went on to make history.  

I read a book by Carol Dweck called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” over the summer. Dweck explains that there are two mindsets: a “fixed” mindset, and a “growth” mindset. Rather than believing that there’s nothing you can do to change the outcome, you have to realize you have control over the situation.    

“I changed,” Lezak said, when he realized he wasn’t about to quit. “I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m at the Olympic Games, I’m here for the United States of America. I don’t care how bad it hurts, I’m going after it.’”

When I went my fastest time in the 200 fly, I finally decided to suck it up. I said those awful words: “You know it’s going to hurt. Just go.” Granted, I did not go a world record time, but I was proud of my race. I left the pool knowing, in that race, I couldn’t have gone any faster.

Be Open Minded


Photo Courtesy: R-Sport / MIA Rossiya Segodnya

In an interview with The Arizona RepublicKatie Ledecky’s coach Bruce Gemmell, explained Ledecky’s strategy as simply putting herself into perspective.

“She’s embraced the notion that all events can be swum with a sprinter’s mindset. The longest event is 15 minutes and in the world of competition that’s not a marathon or a triathlon. It’s not good enough to be a grinder or super strong on the endurance side. There has to be a sprint element involved.” Ledecky doesn’t believe in strategy. There can be no doubting or second-guessing yourself when you’re about to sprint a mile.

“She’s willing to try new things and expose herself to failure,” Gemmell added. “When things don’t go exactly right, she’s focused on what she needs to do to get better and willing to push her limits.”

How will you know if you never even try? After going a best time the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I got stuck in a rut. I didn’t get anywhere near that same time until five years later when I dropped three seconds. What changed?

I changed my routine.

I had assumed that as I got older, I wouldn’t have to work any harder. I would naturally get better and my times would go down. Five years later, I was still no faster. I decided to change the way I swam the race. Instead of focusing on taking it out fast, I worked on powering through the back half. That willingness to take on the unexpected got me the results I had been expecting.   

Stay Relaxed

Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Ding Xu

Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Ding Xu

For some reason, the 100 fly in the middle of a relay is infinitely easier than the individual 100 fly. Maybe it’s due to your teammates backing you up and supporting you behind the blocks, not to mention the energy you all share. You’re swimming for a cause bigger than yourself. Lezak was able to dig deep once he realized he was swimming with America behind him.

On CBS, Ledecky pointed out that, even with the astronomical standards she has created for herself since the 2012 Olympics, she hasn’t changed anything about her mindset heading to Rio in 2016. She has surrounded herself with people she can trust.

“Everybody’s there to support me,” she explained, “And that just takes all the pressure off.”

When you’re so good that you accidentally go a best time and break your own world record in a prelims swim, it would seem the only possible thing you would want to change is your mental approach. After all, for us collegiate athletes, we have been swimming for more than half our lives. We’ve swam thousands of yards, and spent hours staring at the black line. We wouldn’t still be doing the sport if something about it didn’t trigger those endorphin’s that make us love it so much. We have just to remember to have fun through those rough times.


  1. Jodi Edge Brocki

    The book he read is amazing! I have recommended it to my 14 year old swimmer to read. I recommend it to everyone! Love Jason’s mindset!

  2. avatar
    Omondi Kevin

    Amazing article

  3. avatar
    Omondi Kevin

    Amazing article. I love it