JASON LEZAK…HIS NAME WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN HERE AT “FOUR PACKS”…FOR HIS ATHLETIC ACCOMPLISHMENTS AT THE BEJING OLYMPICS AND THE CLASS AND HONOR WITH WHICH HE CONDUCTS HIMSELF AND HIS LIFE…IAN O’CONNOR AT FOX SPORTS HAS GOTTEN THE 2008 “SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR” RIGHT…IN EVERY SENSE OF THE PHRASE…READ BELOW AND BE INSPRIRED…FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIVES….
“…In the age of Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak is a most worthy Sportsman of the Year…”
“I was out there for the USA, for my teammates, and for myself. I had a great appreciation for what Michael was trying to accomplish, but I didn’t feel any of that pressure to keep his hopes for eight (golds) alive. I just wanted to personally get that gold medal in the relay back for my country.”
Jason Lezak’s 46.06 was David Tyree multiplied by Lake Placid.
…And Lezak knew halfway through his leg he couldn’t save the day. On his watch, Phelps’ quest to go 8-for-8 and break Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds wouldn’t even make it through event No. 2.
A half-body deficit had grown into almost a full-body deficit at the turn, and Lezak told himself, “It’s over. I’ve got no chance.”
For the first three or four seconds of the race, after Cullen Jones handed him an impossible deficit to overcome, Lezak thought his anxieties had caused him to false-start. For the first four or five seconds of the final lap, Lezak thought Bernard had clinched the gold.
But the only thing working faster than Lezak’s brain was his body.
“You’re at the Olympic Games,” he finally told himself. “You can’t roll over. You can’t give up.”
Suddenly Lezak started gaining on the indomitable Frenchman, who had sniffed about the Americans, “We’re going to smash them.”
Suddenly Lezak started closing on maybe the greatest Olympic moment since Mike Eruzione’s goal beat the Soviets’ Big Red Machine in 1980.
Sure, a defeat would still allow Phelps to tie Spitz with seven golds. But Americans have never been terribly interested in ties. If Phelps’ drive for the record was stopped so early in the Olympics, millions of his countrymen would’ve dropped swimming from the ranks of their must-see TV.
Phelps didn’t believe his teammate could pull it off; nobody did. Lezak’s own flesh and blood had given up hope, too.
His older sister, Nicole, was sitting with his mother, Linda, up in the nosebleed seats. “Hold on for second, hold on for second,” Linda said as her boy headed for home.
Jason’s younger sister, Erin, was sitting with his wife, Danielle, in seats closer to the action. “When Jason dove in,” Danielle said, “I was thinking silver like everyone else.”
That dynamic was flipped on its ear with 30 meters to go. Breathing to his right and toward Bernard in the neighboring lane, Lezak could see the leader losing steam.
Maybe Bernard had gone out too fast. Maybe he was pressing too hard to honor his prerace boast. Bernard had made the tactical error of swimming on the left side of his lane, strengthening the draft that pulled the American toward him.
Lezak felt a surge of adrenaline he’d never felt before. “He’s getting tired,” he told himself. “You can do this.”
With 10 meters to go, Lezak was almost even. His wife could barely watch. Danielle buried herself in the arms of her sister-in-law, who kept screaming, “Jason’s catching up. He’s catching up.”
Back in Irvine, among 40 guests in the home of Danielle’s parents, Jason’s father would watch this preposterous scene on NBC’s tape-delayed telecast. David Lezak had followed his son to all corners of the globe, but the apparel executive had to prepare for a big trade show in Las Vegas and couldn’t make it to Beijing.
David had warned everyone that he didn’t want to know the result. But a friend from Miami called and ignored his request, telling him, “I’ll just say I think you’ll like the result.”
Like the result? As David Lezak watched the final leg unfold he told himself, “Did my friend actually think I was going to like watching my son lose to a French guy who shot his mouth off about smashing us?”
Soon enough, Jason’s father understood. With 5 meters left, his son was in a dead heat with Bernard. Jason was swimming toward the image of a hysterical Phelps.
“I wasn’t out there to do anything for Michael,” he said. “I was out there for the USA, for my teammates, and for myself. I had a great appreciation for what Michael was trying to accomplish, but I didn’t feel any of that pressure to keep his hopes for eight (golds) alive. I just wanted to personally get that gold medal in the relay back for my country.”
Lezak and Bernard touched the wall beneath the water’s surface at virtually the same moment, and then everyone whipped their heads over their shoulders as if tracking a speeding comet in the sky. The scoreboard said the journeyman, the guy who couldn’t win the big one, the anchorman whose name was foreign to the average American sports fan, had just won the gold with the fastest split of all time.
Jason Lezak’s 46.06 was David Tyree multiplied by Lake Placid.
“It was Bob Beamon-esque,” said Gregg Wilson, Lezak’s coach at UC-Santa Barbara.
The Americans had taken four full seconds off the world record. With Lezak still in the water, the cameras quickly focused on the wailing spasm that was Phelps, whose every muscle, tendon and ligament appeared ready to explode in sci-fi form. Lezak was so exhausted when he pulled himself out of the water, he gashed open his shin against the edge of the deck.
He didn’t feel any pain.
Six days later, after winning his first individual medal in three Olympics (a bronze in the 100 free), Lezak was the appropriate closer in Phelps’ eighth and final event, sealing another world record in the medley relay.
With the legendary Spitz in his hip pocket, Phelps left Beijing for a dizzying procession of multimillion-dollar offers and Saturday Night Live skits.
Jason Lezak flew home in coach.America didn’t forget him, not right away. Lezak got face time with Conan O’Brien and Ellen DeGeneres, and joined his Olympic teammates on Oprah. He threw out the first pitch at an Angels game. He was recognized in restaurants and airports. His e-mail account was flooded with messages of thanks from friends and strangers who reveled in his feat.
Lezak has watched the NBC tape of his race enough times to mimic the breathless calls of Rowdy Gaines and Dan Hicks. But with Michael Mania still going full blast, Lezak has faded into the background of his niche sport.
“If Jason doesn’t do what he does, Phelps ends up with six gold medals,” said Lezak’s old Irvine coach, Dave Salo. “I think Michael would’ve lost the 100 fly to (Milorad) Cavic without the boost Jason gave him. The energy would’ve been sucked out of the whole thing. People would’ve tuned out, and the whole Phelps phenomenon wouldn’t have happened.
“I think Michael and USA Swimming owe Jason a lot more than they truly understand.”
Asked if Phelps had ever told him, “I couldn’t have done it without you,” Lezak said,
“There were no exact words like that. Michael was after something and he knew he needed his teammates to achieve it.
“I’m just glad I was a part of Olympic history. And there’s really nothing more that needs to be said.”
In the age of Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak is a most worthy Sportsman of the Year.