Commentary

Jason Lezak, the anchor, one year later

Originally Published: August 11, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

What were you doing a year ago tonight?

Don't bother trying to recollect. I'll tell you.

You were on your feet screaming at your television -- waking the kids, scaring the pets, alarming the neighbors. Or you were high-fiving perfect strangers at a sports bar. Or, if you were on a JetBlue flight equipped with DirecTV, you were erupting in cheers at 38,000 feet.

Jason Lezak has heard all the stories of what he provoked on Aug. 11, 2008, in America.

"When you hear how people reacted," he said, "you know it was something special."

Oh, it was special. Lezak's lift-a-car-off-a-baby adrenaline surge delivered the first unforgettable moment of the Beijing Olympics. His epic, impossible, 4x100-meter freestyle relay anchor leg boiled the Water Cube in Beijing, humbled some haughty Frenchmen, and propelled Michael Phelps toward Olympic history.

Phelps went on to own the Games, of course. They were his coming into China and going out, with a record eight goal medals in his carry-on luggage. But he couldn't have won them all without winning that relay, his second event of the meet.

And the Americans would not have won that relay without the greatest come-from-behind swim ever, courtesy of an unsung supporting actor who cannot believe it's been a year since Beijing.

"Time has gone by really quick," Lezak said.

One hundred meters has never gone by more quickly than it did 365 days ago. Lezak's relay split that day was a preposterous 46.06 seconds, the fastest time in human history.

That moment has propelled the quiet Californian into previously unimagined adventures. He's become a part-time corporate speaker, delivering speeches about that race and his swimming career dozens of times in the United States and abroad. He competed in the Maccabiah Games this summer, meeting the president of Israel and becoming the first competing athlete to light the flame for those Games. And he's become a little more recognizable while walking the street, thanks to those 46 incredible seconds in China.

Thing is, Lezak had to be that fast for the Americans to own the world record and win the gold medal -- even a tenth of a second slower and the result would have been silver. And it had to be that fast for Lezak to gain redemption eight years in the making.

"Every time I see it, I get the same feeling," Lezak said. "The chills, the goose bumps, my heart rate gets going. It's like I'm back in the moment.

"But it wasn't all about that particular moment. There was so much leading up to that moment."

As with every good story, there is a backstory.

Until 2000, the U.S. had won every Olympic gold medal in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. All of them. Then, with Lezak on the relay team in Sydney in 2000, the Americans were dethroned by Australia.

It happened again in 2004 in Athens, when the U.S. finished third with Lezak anchoring. He anchored other American freestyle relays that lost in international competitions as well. A point of national swimming pride had devolved into something of an embarrassment.

So when Lezak made the Olympic team last year at the creaky age of 32, he was less focused on his individual swim in the 100-meter freestyle than he was on getting America back to the top of the medal podium in the 4x100 free relay. Lezak was consumed with that event, lying in bed at night and picturing how it would unfold.

On paper it figured to be very tight between the Americans and the French, who were anchored by 100-meter freestyle world-record holder Alain Bernard. Prior to the race, Bernard reportedly said the French would "smash" the U.S. His competitor on the final leg would be Lezak.

"I knew it might come down to me and Bernard," Lezak said. "But every time I would visualize the race, it would be me being ahead and holding him off. Whenever I visualized it with me behind, I just shut it off and didn't think about it."

That thought was too daunting. Until, of course, it became reality.

When Lezak stood on the starting block in a raucous Water Cube, waiting for third-leg swimmer Cullen Jones to touch the wall, the outlook was disastrous. Bernard already was in the water in the adjacent lane. The Americans were all but beaten, facing the equivalent of a two-touchdown deficit with a minute to play.

"I just don't think they can do it," NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines said on-air to colleague Dan Hicks.

Neither did Lezak.

"I had doubts," he said. "I had to override them."

The doubts grew along with Bernard's lead after 50 meters, which was about two-tenths of a second at that point -- a fat margin in a sprint. Lezak breathes to his right side only, and Bernard was on his left. So Lezak didn't know how dire the circumstances were until he flipped at the wall and peeked underwater as he began the drive for home.

"When I flipped and saw how far ahead he was, I thought, 'Oh, great. There's no way,'" Lezak recalled. "But I had to get those thoughts out of my head."

What transpired from there will be remembered for as long as there are swim meets.

Lezak furiously plowed through the water on the right side of his lane, drafting off Bernard's considerable wake and whittling inches off his lead with every arm pull. Still, with less than 25 meters to go, the situation seemed hopeless enough that Hicks said, "They should get the silver medal."

They should have. Until the final 15 meters.

"Something inside just happened," Lezak said. "About 15 meters left, I got another surge of adrenaline, something I've never gotten before. It got me through when I was fading."

It got all of America off the couch, on its feet, screaming. The impossible was suddenly plausible, as Lezak pulled even with Bernard in the final couple of meters. His last stroke, a desperate windmill finish with his right arm, was perfect: It brought his hand to the touch pad 0.08 seconds ahead of the Frenchman.

The Water Cube erupted. Lezak turned and looked at the scoreboard through his dark goggles, saw the "1" next to "USA" and pumped his fist.

The photographers quickly lost track of the hero and focused on the pool-deck reaction of his teammates. Leadoff swimmer Phelps bellowed from his taut core. Second leg Garrett Weber-Gale rose from his knees, screaming. Jones was near tears.

Then they hauled Lezak out of the water. He'd just become the oldest male swimming gold medalist in Olympic history, irrevocably changing his reputation as a relay swimmer and altering his career path in the process.

Lezak took two months off from swimming after the Olympics, then returned to the water part-time only as he continued to make the rounds on the speakers' circuit.

"I didn't think I'd ever be able to speak at the corporate level in my life," he said. "I found out I can do it, with a little practice and a little work."

He got back into the water full-time in February, and has been swimming fast since then. He posted a sub-48-second 100 at the Janet Evans meet in May, one of the top times internationally in 2009, and then swam well in Israel.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "I definitely think if I can keep my body healthy, I'd like to try to make the team for 2012 at 36."

Today, however, is not for looking forward. It's for looking back a year, to the day Jason Lezak brought America to its feet.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.