“I did not have a smooth journey to the top. I made plenty of mistakes- but I always learned from them.”
Jason Lezak, eight-time Olympic medalist and owner of the fastest 100M free relay split of all-time, spent a day at SwimLabs Highlands Ranch on May 31. Lezak spoke to swimmers, parents and coaches about his unique journey before offering critique and feedback to swimmers and recording for the video library.
Lezak started swimming at age five and swam until retirement at age 37. He attended four Olympic Games (2000 to 2012), held the American Record in the 100 free, and finished his Olympic career as the captain of the US Olympic swim team in 2012.
But Lezak emphasized not his success but the challenges he faced and mistakes he made. He held national age group records at a young age, but his passion faded and he fell off the national scene between age ten and freshman year in high school.
“When I started high school, I noticed how much fun everyone was having. I remembered that swimming was supposed to be fun and changed my mindset to be more positive. Good results followed.”
With renewed passion, Lezak excelled in high school and earned a scholarship to University of California, Santa Barbara. He made the Olympic Trials cut in the 100 free and was thrilled to be on his way to achieving the goal – swimming in the Olympics – that he set after watching the 1984 Games in his hometown of Los Angeles.
“But I went into the ready room and saw all my idols – American Record holders, National Champions – and I freaked out. I couldn’t focus on my race and I got second . . . to last.”
After this setback, Lezak lost his passion for swimming and his UCSB coach told him he was off the team. The swimmer reacted by writing a contract, pledging his full participation and commitment. He followed it to the letter.
“Guess what happens when you do what you’re supposed to do?” he asked the young swimmers. “I’ll tell you in two words – Get Faster.”
Lezak went on to win two national championship titles in the 100 free and went back to Olympic Trials with confidence. He didn’t let anyone psych him out and placed fourth in the 100 free, which allowed him to swim on the 4x100 free relay in Sydney. The Americans lost by one-tenth of a second to the hometown Aussies, who played air guitar on deck to mock their rivals.
In Athens (2004), the 400 free relay came in third and Lezak swam the 100 free as an individual. He was the American record-holder going into the meet (having broken the record of his idol, Matt Biondi), and he decided to conserve energy in the prelims so he would have more fuel in the tank for semis and finals. Unfortunately, he came in 21st, and missed the cut to move on. He watched the gold medalist win in the same time Lezak had swum at US Trials.
“That was a huge mistake. I learned a lot from that swim. Go for what you want, whenever you get the chance.”
After 2004 many thought he should retire. But Lezak wanted to do two things: 1. Avenge the 400 free relay, which the US had lost for six straight years in major international competition, 2. Make up for his mistake in the individual 100 free. “I was still improving, still having fun,” he said.
Then his coach of fifteen years left for USC while the swimmer was training for Beijing. Lezak decided to coach himself. He ignored the naysayers and always remembered to ask himself: “What are my goals?” and “What am I trying to accomplish?”
As a 32-year-old, he made his 3rd Olympic team as the oldest man on the team. First up was the 400 free relay vs. favored France, who anchored with the world record holder, Alain Bernard.
Lezak, the anchor for the U.S., had imagined starting the race with a slight lead, but instead the U.S. was slightly behind. Lezak got off to a lightning – fast start (.03 reaction time) and did not see his rival on the first 50M, as he breathes to his right and Bernard was on his left. “So when I flipped at the wall, I thought, Oh man! He’s way ahead!”
He fought to replace negative thoughts with positive. “I can catch him, I’m going to catch him.” What Lezak describes as a surge of adrenaline overtook him with 15 M left in the race and he did overtake Alain Bernard to win for the Americans by .10. Lezak’s split of 46.06 is still the fastest 100M split ever, and surpassed his own personal best by 1.5 seconds. It’s considered one of the best relay swims of all time.
“I love to win, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something great about winning with teammates, winning with friends.”
Lezak won the bronze medal in the individual 100 free and kept training and competing after Beijing. He made the 2012 Olympic team as a member of the 400 free relay and was elected team captain. Lezak did retire after London as a standout American swimmer with one of the greatest races ever to his name. His day at SwimLabs inspired swimmers and coaches to persevere through difficult times, learn from mistakes and dream big.
About the Author
Laura Dravenstott has been a competitive swimmer for over thirty years and has worked at SwimLabs for the past three years as a coach and instructor. Laura has a degree in English from Harvard College and an MA in Creative Writing from Regis University. She has published fiction and poetry and blogs regularly at www.wildspecifictangent.com.