SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – For the last two Olympics, American swimmer and former UC Santa Barbara standout Jason Lezak was the oldest man on the United States Olympic Swim Team. Having no desire to make it a third, the 37-year old Lezak has officially announced his retirement today, wrapping a spectacular career that has spanned four Olympics and eight medals (four gold, two silver, and two bronze).
Lezak, though, was more to the American team than just a collection of eight medals. He was one of the great leaders in swimming history, and gave the sport a moment it will never forget: the final leg of the 2008 Beijing 400 free relay.
Not that any fans need reminding of this relay, but Lezak hit the water nearly a body-length behind France's Alain Bernard, who was the World Record holder and swimming as well as any sprinter we've ever seen. It looked like the French would have the race in the bag, even headed into the final 50 meters. Then, Lezak unfathomably turned on his ever-incredible engine and ran down the Frenchman.
In itself, this swim was one of the top-three moments in swimming history, unquestionably, and without accepting of any debate. Adding in what his teammate Michael Phelps was in the midst of accomplishing, with his record-setting eight Olympic gold medal performance, and this swim was elevated into another stratosphere as the greatest, and most iconic swimming moment ever.
"No matter how my individual performances went at World's, Olympics, and so on, I always wanted to step-up on relays for the team and our country," Lezak said. "The 400 free relay was on 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."
Lezak is a Southern California boy, born and bred, from Irvine High School through his independent training grounds at Rose Bowl Aquatics. For a man who was such a leader and so looked-up-to within the National Team, he still amazingly trained himself over his last two Olympics without a coach or a training partner.
The relay swim is what swim fans will perhaps, best remember him for; athletes, though, always have their own favorite moments, and in a career as long as this one was, there were plenty of highlights. For Lezak, one year that stood out was in 2004, before he achieved his lofty legendary status when he broke the American Record in the 100 free.
"I swam faster than my childhood idol Matt Biondi for the first time in the race," Lezak said. "That's a moment I'll never forget. I also often think back on another swim from Beijing where I won my first Olympic medal (bronze in the 100 free, tied with Cesar Cielo). I'd been fourth or fifth over and over again at big international competitions, and that swim finally broke me through."
He is a unique man. In 2009, when he sat atop the heap as one of the world's great stars of swimming, Lezak skipped the World Championships to instead represent the United States at the 2009 Maccabiah Games.
"This is the perfect time in my career to do something like this," he said of the decision.
That was a big moment for Lezak. He was very proud of his Jewish heritage, and stands among the greatest Jewish swimmers of all time. That's no short list, either, including names like Mark Spitz, Dara Torres, Garrett Weber-Gale, and Lenny Krayzelburg.
He almost retired after 2008. His agent, Evan Morgenstein, says he was "very close."
The two had a very special relationship, so this is a big moment for Morgenstein as well.
"He was one of my first athletes and we got to grow up in the sport together, we traveled all over the world together. I think that's one of the things that make Jason very special to me as a client.
"[After Beijing] we weren't sure about an apparel deal, he was doing a lot of speeches but the economy tanked within 60 days of the Beijing Games' end," Morgenstein said. "We kept discussing whether or not we actually needed Jason in the water competing to do speeches, clinics, etc. We ultimately decided that Jason still had a passion, and that more than the money was why he decided that he was going to try and make the 2012 team. Winning an individual medal I think was a big part of it."
Lezak would go on to win one more medal, a silver on the 400 free relay, to cap his career. He will now step away to impart decades of experience and wisdom with others through clinics, motivational speaking, and plans to start his own series of swim camps.
For all of his accomplishments, whenever anybody thinks the name "Lezak," their mind will always go back to that one illustrious swim, that one moment, where he took down the mighty French. He's become so pervasive that he's even been verbified - if you get run down at the end of a relay, you've been 'Lezak'ed'. Swimming seasons, swimming careers, are long and grueling. As a sport, we live for those incredible moments, at the end of a season, at the end of a quadrennial, at the end of a decade of work, those moments that give us chills in our spines and bring tears to our eyes. There's no "running out the clock" in swimming. There's no "kneeling" in swimming. Swimming lives, breathes, labors and dies for the kind of experiences that Lezak gave us all on that fateful moment.
Where were you when Lezak won gold?