Jason Lezak

July 2, 2012 Jason Lezak

This past week I have been avidly watching the swimming competition in the Olympic trials. The United States is unquestionably the world’s swimming powerhouse. Just to be invited to the trials is a big honor. One must be among the world’s best swimmers to get an invitation. I know because at one time I was a swimmer, desperately trying to be at least mediocre and failing at that. But I know great swimmers when I see them. Obviously Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are the finest swimmers in the world, and their exciting head-to-head duels were mesmerizing. But I was more thrilled for Jason Lezak who came in sixth and barely qualified for the relay events. Lezak will always be in the hearts of those invested in the swimming community for his anchor leg of the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In a race determined by tenths of a second, he started a body length behind the French anchor Alain Bernard. No one thought he had a chance. Bernard held the world’s record for 100 meters, and after this race he won the 100 meter gold medal with Lezak coming in a distant third. With 25 meters to the finish Lezak was still half a body length behind Bernard. Everyone conceded the gold medal to France except Lezak. He never gave up. He never stopped pushing. He pulled out resources no one thought he had. And stroke by stroke he gained on Bernard until he just out touched him at the wall. He beat Bernard by eight hundreds of a second. His relay split was 46.06, the fastest in history. He swam the final 50 meters 0.9 seconds faster than Bernard. One of the sweet parts of this is that Bernard had taunted the Americans before the race, predicting the French would “smash” them in the final. It took Lezak’s incredible performance to wipe that smirk off his face. At the end of the race the camera doesn’t focus on Lezak in the water holding on to the lane marker and gasping for breath, but on the exultant Phelps celebrating his seventh gold medal. And later Lezak congratulating Phelps, a team player to the end and a footnote to Olympic history. He should have given up. He knew he was swimming against the world record holder. He didn’t have a chance. Yet he didn’t give up and he performed far above his ability and somehow against the odds won the event. It makes no difference what he did before, or what he did afterwards. For one shining moment he was the best in the world, perhaps the best of all time. He was the best when it counted and for that he will always be a hero. A quote from another great athlete, Steve Prefontaine, tells what it takes when everything is at risk: “I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.” Lezak is a blue collar guy. He doesn’t have a lithe muscular body like Phelps or Nathan Adrian who won the 100 at the these trials. After Beijing he came back to LA and was mainly ignored while Phelps made the media tour and got commercials and endorsements. He is one of the few swimmers who doesn’t have a personal coach. His one commercial endorsement by Nike has been terminated. I would think he is the essence of “Just Do It.” But apparently Nike doesn’t see it that way. After he qualified for the 2012 relay team by coming in sixth, the swim coach refused to commit using Lezak in the relay again saying: “We’ve got eight to nine really great freestylers, and we’re going to put the fastest race together that we can.” Lezak still can’t get any respect. Despite all that, when I think of rising to the occasion, of gutting it out, of surmounting the pain, I think of Lezak. I think of the man who swam the greatest relay leg of all-time. He is the only athlete who I would ask for an autograph. Lezak’s fortitude is a symbol for everyone in a competitive business. All too often we take the easy way out. It is easy to say we can’t win so why go through the pain of trying? Why stay up all night preparing for the next day’s witnesses? Why keep researching a problem looking for an obscure answer? As Thomas Edison noted: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” So gut it out to the end; who knows you might even win.