Almost every major sports fan in the world knows swimmer Michael Phelps won a gasp-inducing eight Olympic gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Games, but far fewer will recall that the record-setting haul would never have happened without the super-human efforts of USA teammate Jason Lezak. Here, the relay specialist reflects on his role in one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history.
Jason Lezak made the impossible possible on 11 August 2008. When the USA swimmer hit the water in the anchor leg of the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay final, he was more than half-a-body length behind France’s Alain Bernard – the man who had gone into the race as the 100m freestyle world record holder. Teammate Michael Phelps’ uber-hyped assault on fellow swimmer Mark Spitz’s legendary record of seven gold medals in one Olympic Games appeared dead and buried. But over the course of the next 46.06 seconds Lezak turned the world upside down.
“A lot of times I watch it now as if I am a spectator not the swimmer and honestly I can’t believe it happened,” Lezak said with an infectious laugh. “Forget the speed or the times, he (Bernard) was the world record holder so you wouldn’t imagine someone to pass him from that distance.”
Almost 11 years have passed, but Lezak can recall almost every stroke he took.
“There were obviously lots of nerves before and during the race, but once it got to the point where Cullen (Jones, the USA’s third-leg swimmer) is coming in and I am standing on the block, everything just went away. I was in the zone, I was where I needed to be, focused on doing my race for my team,” Lezak explained.
“On the first 50m I was breathing to my right and he was on my left, so I didn’t really peek to see where he was because I knew that would slow me down. As I got to the 50m (mark) I saw he had increased the lead and my motivation wasn’t very strong. I was thinking, ‘Oh the world record holder is even further ahead of me’.”
So far, so predictable perhaps. But something changed when the USA man turned for home and began swimming towards his teammates, Phelps and all.
“Coming off that wall I felt better than I had probably ever felt before, swimming as fast as I had swum that first 50m. I honestly think my body was just reacting to the situation,” Lezak said, the excitement still evident in his voice.
“The next 50m I could see him breathing every stroke and as I got closer and closer, I had the motivation to go. And I felt another surge of adrenaline, which wasn’t something I had ever felt before. That enabled me to keep my speed up all the way into the wall.”
Speed that saw him record the fastest 100m freestyle leg of all time, speed which helped the USA break the world record, and speed that secured the gold medal, the second in what would turn out to be Phelps’ era-defining haul.
As to how he did it, there are several theories and even Lezak himself is not quite sure which one he believes in.
“The intent was there,” Lezak said of the idea that he had ‘hitched’ a ride, drafting off the back of 1.96m-tall Bernard’s wake. “If you watch the video you can see that during the first 25m I was trying to move over to the lane line (closer to Bernard).
“It was not something I can say I felt. I was not in the perfect drafting position, based on how far behind I was. I don’t know honestly if it did or didn’t help.”
One thing which certainly had a huge impact was Lezak’s preparation for Beijing 2008. The then 32-year-old went into the Games as the oldest swimmer on the USA men’s team but with age he’d gained experience. After winning gold in the 4x100m medley relay at Sydney 2000, Lezak had gone into Athens 2004 as one of the hot favourites for individual gold in the freestyle sprints, but things did not go to plan, the Californian failing to win an individual medal of any colour.
“Being a sprinter we have to rest a lot and in 2004 I rested for the trials like I needed to, but then I got back into it too hard afterwards instead of easing my way into it and I was never really able to recover from that,” Lezak said.
In great shape, the next thing Lezak needed was motivation, and he had that in spades. The USA won every single 4x100 freestyle relay final from the Tokyo 1964 to the Atlanta 1996 Games. But the 36 years of domination came to an end at Sydney 2000, when the USA quartet, with Lezak among them, finished second to a delirious Australian team.
“That was tough,” Lezak admitted. “I have always been a team player. I love team sports and when I got on the relay teams I wanted to win.”
By the time he set off in pursuit of Bernard in Beijing’s Water Cube, Lezak had endured two full Olympic cycles of disappointment – with the USA having finished third in the blue-riband relay at the Athens 2004 Games. As captain of the relay team in Beijing, Lezak was not about to let it happen again.
“It doesn’t take a lot of words if you say the right things. I looked in their eyes and I knew they were all ready to go.”
Phelps, who swum the lead-off leg, went on to win his eighth gold medal at Beijing 2008 six days after Lezak had made his second a reality. In a neat twist, it was Lezak who brought that historic final gold home for Phelps, anchoring the 4x100m medley relay.
“It didn’t need a thank you from Michael,” Lezak laughed. “He is very respectful that, while he did his thing, if it wasn’t for three (relay) teams he wouldn’t have got eight.”