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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

Lezak is more than just a relay guy

August 14, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

Beijing

Jason Lezak has become famous as the man who preserved Michael Phelps' quest for a record eight gold medals when he swam an incredibly fast anchor leg that rallied the U.S. men to a victory in the 400-meter freestyle relay.

That was Lezak's shining moment -- and one of the signature moments of these Olympics -- but he should be recognized as more than a link in Phelps' golden chain.

There's much to admire about this self-coached and self-directed swimmer from Irvine, a man who felt a gnawing regret in his gut since he miscalculated his preliminary-round strategy in the 100-meter freestyle at the Athens Games and silenced it today by winning his first individual Olympic medal.

Lezak, who has won five relay medals over three Olympics, was in fifth place halfway through the 100 free today. Afraid he'd disrupt his rhythm if he peeked at his rivals' progress but able to see Brazil's Cesar Cielo Filho alongside him in Lane 8, Lezak found the strength to make a late surge that brought him a bronze medal.

Lezak and Filho were each clocked in 47.67 seconds. Alain Bernard of France, whom Lezak overtook in the anchor leg of that memorable 400-free relay, won in 47.21, with Eamon Sullivan of Australia second in 47.32.

"Unfortunately I breathe to my right and I didn't want to take myself away from my stroke and start looking over too much," Lezak said.

"But I knew at the 50 where those other guys were and how they come home, and I was just looking at Cesar, actually, the whole time and I knew he was swimming really well.

"I actually felt a lot better than I did [Wednesday] night. So I knew I was swimming faster but I couldn't really tell where I was going to be."

He was in the medals, and, later, on the podium. How odd he must have felt to stand on that step without any relay teammates beside him.

But how profoundly satisfying.

"This is what's been driving me the last four years," said Lezak, 32, the oldest male swimmer on the U.S. team. "I obviously was shooting for the gold medal but this is great.

"It feels like everything I've done over my career has paid off."

That career has been notable for his relay success.

At Sydney in 2000 he was part of teams that won gold in the 400-meter medley relay and silver in the 400-free relay.

In 2004 he and his teammates again won gold in the medley relay in addition to bronze in the 400-free relay.

A fine resume, certainly. But it was his failure to qualify for the semifinals in the 100 free that kept him going through another four years. During that time he coached himself and supported his wife, Danielle, while she went through nursing school and became an emergency room nurse in Anaheim.

"I just love to compete," Lezak said. "I love to race all these guys. I'd rather race the fastest guys in the world and come up a little bit short than race guys that I know I can beat all the time."

On Monday his sizzling 400-free relay anchor leg of 46.06 seconds was the stuff of legend. It gave him a huge emotional boost, but the adrenaline inevitably wore off.

"The momentum was great, but physically it took a toll on me," he said. "I'm lucky I survived out there. I'm feeling a little tired right now. And I got a couple days' rest, which was much needed."

While he rested, he became an instant celebrity for his effort toward preserving Phelps' shot at Olympic immortality. He did it for Phelps, as a solid teammate would, but not only for Phelps.

"We absolutely respect and admire Michael's goals," said Aaron Peirsol, who advanced to the finals of the men's 200-meter backstroke by winning his semifinal today, "But the feeling on the team, of course, is that by no means does one man come first. . . .

"No one here is racing for second place, no one on our team. The feeling on our team is we're all racing to win. He's doing exceptionally well, but by no means is he the only one we're rooting for."

Lezak was worth rooting for today. And every day.

When he's called upon to anchor the medley relay Sunday -- the final swimming event and the one on which Phelps' record might hinge -- Lezak will again do all he can, and for the right reasons.

"I've been part of a lot of relays over the years and I've lost a lot of relays and it doesn't feel good," Lezak said.

"I've always been a good relay guy. I've always wanted to do it for myself. But we're representing our country, the United States of America, so it's not just about four guys. It's about the whole country behind us."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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