- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Jason Lezak knew the story of the 4x100 men’s relay on the U.S. Olympic team. In the last nine games, the Americans had won the race seven times.

Record without Lezak: 7-0.

Record with Lezak: 0-2.

Twice he had been a member of the team in the Olympics, a squad that was favored to keep the streak alive (2000) and return it to prominence (2004). Each time he was tabbed to swim the final leg.

And twice the Americans were defeated, by the host Australians in Sydney and by South Africa in Athens. In both races, Lezak said, the race was over by the time he hit the pool.

“It wasn’t attainable,” he said. “There was no way I was going to catch the guy.”

Maybe that’s what triggered Lezak’s swim of a lifetime late Monday morning at the Water Cube and gave people something else to talk about besides Michael Phelps.

Lezak saw Alain Bernard in the next lane fly in - Lezak figured he was within range, even though coach Eddie Reese later would say he thought the American’s chances were “slim to none.” And he realized the magnitude of the situation: At age 32, Lezak might be swimming in his last Olympics, and Phelps, swimming the first leg for the United States, is gunning for eight gold medals.

“I knew I would have to swim out of my mind,” Lezak said.

This was his chance to return the United States to prominence in the 4x100 relay. But try as Lezak might, Bernard, the current 100-meter world record holder, pulled away over the first 50 meters. And just before he hit the wall, Lezak saw Bernard.

He was heading the other direction. The lead was now 0.59 seconds - kind of like a two-touchdown deficit at the two-minute warning. And for the first time, Lezak thought about being a part of three losing relay teams.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “When I flipped at the 50 and saw how far ahead he was, the thought for a split-second was, ‘There’s no way.’ But then I changed. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. This is the Olympics. I’m here for the United States of America.’ Honestly, within five seconds, I was thinking all those things.”

When his hopes turned around, so did Lezak’s race.

“I got a super charge and just took it from there,” he said.

At 25 meters, the deficit still looked impossible to overcome. World record holders in the Olympics like Bernard don’t lose races like this. He had practically guaranteed victory late last week.

On the deck, having completed their legs, Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones tried to will Lezak into the lead. Weber-Gale was pounding his hands on the starting block, screaming a certain expletive. Phelps was screaming. Jones was jumping up and down.

With 20 meters remaining, the comeback started. Lezak moved over in his lane to be closer to Bernard. Bingo. He started to gain. They were even inside 10 meters. It would be all about who had the longer reach or the longer fingernails and hit the wall first.

Lezak finished ahead of Bernard by 0.08 seconds, and the United States was back on the gold medal stand in the 4x100 relay. Phelps’ bid for history remained intact. Jones nearly fell into the pool. Weber-Gale looked to the U.S. supporters.

And Lezak caught his breath. It was an incredible race. Four teams broke the world record, and the American time of 3:08.24 was almost four seconds under the mark set by the U.S. B team 15 hours earlier. Eleven swimmers eclipsed the current individual leg world record of 47.70 seconds. The top three finishers set American, European and Oceanian records.

In under 50 seconds, Lezak had become the first great U.S. story of the games that didn’t revolve totally around Phelps.

Lezak is opposite Phelps in a lot of ways. He’s over 30. He’s married. He’s got a receding hairline. He’s a freestyle specialist. And he has one shot at individual gold.

If Phelps finishes with eight gold medals, Speedo will give him $1 million. Lezak warrants a slice of that check, right?

“We’ve already talked about that,” he said. “But Michael can keep what he gets.”

Which is fine with Lezak. He’s got that 100-meter leg as a keepsake.



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