How To Stop Time

by Casey Barrett

The Moment and the Career of Jason Lezak…

At 37-years-old, four and a half years removed from delivering the most dramatic moment in swimming history, Jason Lezak announced his retirement this week. It concludes one of the longest ever careers in American swimming – 13 straight years on Team USA’s national team, from 1999 to 2012, one year longer than Michael Phelps’s tenure. Yet he will be remembered for just 46 perfect seconds.

Lezak, of course, will live forever in Olympic lore for that out-of-body performance in Beijing, on the anchor leg of the men’s 4 x 100 free relay. It was The Swim Heard Round the World, every bit on par with any do-you-believe-in-miracles finish in any sport, ever. Click on that link and watch it again. I defy anyone not to get chills all over again. We all know the context – Phelps’s epic 8-gold quest on the line; the French unbeatable on paper; diving in a body length behind the world record holder… And then. And then the angels descended (American angels, in any case) and lifted Lezak to the impossible.

You know the rest. But that all-time Moment isn’t what this story is about.  It’s about what happened before – and after.

Here is a brutally honest history of the Before: Jason Lezak was a good but not great age group swimmer growing up in Southern California. He swam for Dave Salo at Irvine NOVA and, like many a talented sprinter, he stood out for his laziness. In college, he swam for the University of California, Santa Barbara, where again he was a good but not great swimmer. According to the Gauchos’ own athletic website, Lezak was thrown off of the UCSB swim team his junior year due to a “poor attitude and sportsmanship.” When he returned, after a written apology to his teammates, he managed to finish his collegiate career on a high note, with All-American honors in the 50 and 100 free.

Then something odd happened. At a time when most swimmers of his achievement level hang up their goggles and move on to professional careers on dry land, Lezak turned pro as a swimmer. Something seems to have clicked for him in the summer after graduation, when he raced onto his first National Team and competed at the 1999 Pan Pacific Games in Sydney. That meet was a showcase for the coming Games, held in Sydney’s brand new Olympic pool. With six Olympic spots up for grabs in his best event, it only made sense to keep going another year. He was 24 years old and just finding his stride.

What followed was an unprecedented post-grad career punctuated as much by disappointment as by ever improving times. Lezak soon became the go-to anchor of American sprint relays. It was a dubious honor. His ascent to that lofty position coincided with Team USA’s descent from the top of the podium. When Lezak made his first National Team in ’99, the American men had never lost that relay. Ever. In the first seven years of the Lezak era, they lost their grip on it. The Ian Thorpe-led Aussies out-touched them at home in Sydney; in Athens they were flat-out smoked, settling for bronze after an Ian Crocker lead-off leg left the squad impossibly behind.

Lezak has recounted these disappointments countless times in the years since Beijing. It’s clear that the losses were personal and that they played a major role in  his Beijing heroics. Until he dove in the water that August morning in China, his was a proud career filled with bubbling-over bitterness. He’d been called a “professional relay swimmer”, a cruel dig implying his lack of success in individual races at international competitions. The dig cut deep; there was truth in it. Four years previously in Athens, Lezak had entered the Games as the gold medal favorite in the 100 free, after an American record swim at the ’04 Trials positioned him as the man to beat. He did not advance out of prelims.

In Beijing, it looked like he was in store for more of the same. Another minor medal on the relay, another mid-pack finish in the individual 100 free. That is, until he turned for home. At that moment, time stopped and Lezak entered an alternate reality. 46.06 seconds later, Lezak was reborn. He was suddenly an Olympic legend for all-time. A man who summoned something outside himself at the very moment he needed it most. Then he followed it with an encore bronze medal in the individual 100 free. That one, so personal and demon killing, may have meant even more to him than the relay.

Then came the After: When American Olympians do something stunningly special, other Americans want to hear about it. They want to hear these athletes recount the moment – over and over and over again. Cue the “Motivational Speaking” circuit. Aka Groundhog Day for Olympic greats…

In the fall of 2008, at a swimming conference in Mexico City, I got to hear Lezak relive his Moment for the assembled coaches, swimmers, and swim school owners. It was delivered with a curious mixture of inspiration and weariness. Of course it was inspiring. The man did what every swimmer dreams of, what every coach wants for every athlete. As a budding motivational speaker, his Moment supplied motivation in its purest form: I did it – and you could too. Lezak, the good but not great club and college swimmer. Lezak, the swimmer who refused to hang it up, who kept dropping best times, year in and year out, right into his 30s. Lezak, the relay fixture who persevered through loss after loss on the biggest stage, and finally came through in the ultimate fashion. Folks will line up and pay to hear such things. I paid in Mexico City.

Yet, already, there was the weariness. There was an awareness even then, so soon after the Moment itself, that this was now his life. Recounting and reselling the same 46.06 seconds, ad nauseum. Time had stopped indeed. And now it was his job to share that frozen moment, endlessly, in the name of motivation.

Even then he refused to stop swimming. Perhaps because he needed to know that there was more ahead, that the clock continued to move when he entered the water. By this time, Lezak had become the lone wolf of the National Team. He was a man without a team, without a coach. He trained by himself, in So Cal isolation, surfacing for the big ones, maintaining his spot for four more years of international competitions.

In Omaha, he backdoored his way onto his fourth and final Olympic team, after Ryan Lochte bowed out of the final at the U.S. Olympic Trials and left the door open for Lezak, who had finished 9th in the semifinal. He seized the opportunity and earned his trip to London with a 6th place finish in the final. It was enough to give him a spot on the prelims squad, but not enough to put him among the big four in the final.

In London, he watched from the stands as Lochte dove in with the lead, the new anchor, with a seemingly safe body length ahead of the French. He watched as France’s Yannick Agnel ran down Lochte in a stomach-turning twist of fate. He watched as his relay mates stood, once again, a step down on the podium and listened to someone else’s national anthem.

What was he thinking in those moments? It should have been me on there… I would have held off the Frenchman… He’d done something much harder before. He’d spent the previous four years describing how it was done to one and all.

Sitting there in that crowd in Mexico City, I remember thinking of Keith Richards playing “Satisfaction”, on yet another tour, five decades after writing the riff in a drugged out haze. I remember thinking of Jimmy Buffett playing “Margaritaville” for the millionth time to swaying packs of Parrotheads, loathing that goddamn lost shaker of salt. I wondered if Lezak would someday feel the same way about his defining moment. Ever grateful and eternally proud, to be sure, but also bone-weary of its repetition. Like those iconic overplayed classics, Lezak delivered something timeless, a greatest hit on the all-time Olympic soundtrack.

But the body of work goes much deeper than those 46 time-stopping seconds.