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Unsung hero

Jason Lezak, without whom Michael Phelps doesn't write Olympic history, returns home without fanfare.

August 31, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Michael Phelps returned from Beijing to a Magic Kingdom, a Disneyland parade in a red convertible with Mickey Mouse at his side and America at his feet.

Jason Lezak flew home in coach.

"I tried to upgrade, but everything in business was taken," he said. "At least I still got my aisle seat."

Michael Phelps returned from Beijing to a magic carpet ride, an "Entourage" cameo followed by a "Saturday Night Live" gig followed by a $1.6-million book deal.

Jason Lezak changed planes in San Francisco, and still couldn't get bumped up from coach.

"People found out who I was, and so they were all coming to the back of the plane to get pictures of my medals," he said.

Two gold and one bronze, all safely tucked away in an overhead compartment?

"No," he said, chuckling. "They were in my pockets."

Michael Phelps returned home this week as the champagne of American athletes.

The guy who made it possible returned home stuck behind a soft-drink cart.

"None of that stuff ever matters to me," Lezak said. "I'm just a swimmer."

Just a swimmer.

Yet, for one emotion-soaked moment in Beijing, Lezak was the wave beneath Phelps' wings.

In the blink of a goggle, Phelps' quest for a record eight gold medals was saved by Lezak's electrifying 46-second swim.

You remember. Anyone who watched the Olympics remembers.

It occurred during he final leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay, with the U.S. trailing the French team by a body length, with Lezak facing the world's best 100-meter freestyle swimmer in Alain Bernard.

Lezak caught him, passed him, gave the Americans and a screaming, jumping Phelps a victory by 0.08 seconds.

American viewers voted it the most exciting moment of the Games.

Oh, yeah, Lezak followed it a couple of days later by anchoring Phelps' final gold medal in the 400 medley relay, a race that ended by summing up the anchorman's situation perfectly.

While the TV cameras captured Phelps' fist-pumping celebration of history, Lezak was nowhere to be seen -- he was still in the pool, still mostly underwater.

Then Phelps went to Disneyland.

And Lezak went to Irvine.

I caught him there Friday night, watching the 'E' network in his condo, one more phone call before putting his jet-lagged body to bed.

"Look at that. I can't believe it, they are showing another Phelps race, and it's on 'E,' " Lezak said with a laugh. "Man, he's everywhere."

Which is not to say Lezak is nowhere.

He will do Oprah with many other Olympians; he's appearing on Conan and Ellen; he's done several talk radio and studio TV sports shows.

But any fame will be quick, and relatively quiet. Among U.S. swimmers, he won't be treated like the star that is Phelps, or the anomaly that is Dara Torres.

His heroics occurred in the context of a four-man team, and, as much as America claims to value the concept of team, we are still a nation that worships individuals.

"I understand how it works, I'm fine with it," said Lezak, 32, the oldest male member of the team. "I focus on my swim. That is where I get my joy."

Many Olympians returned to elaborate airport rallies befitting a Hollywood celebrity.

Lezak returned to a display befitting a high school quarterback.

After moving mostly unnoticed through John Wayne Airport, he returned home to discover the front yard of his condo covered in tiny American flags and balloons. On his front window, using a soap-like substance, someone had scrawled his winning events and times.

"I'm sitting here now and all the stuff is still there, I can barely see out the window," he said. "But I'm not taking it down."

Many Olympians returned to give immediate big-money speeches in the hallowed halls of Fortune 500 companies.

Lezak flew last week to the home of a Rhode Island business executive.

Once there, he gave a speech to gathered employees around a small swimming pool.

Then they asked him to strip down to his Speedos.

"They told me beforehand that they wanted me to swim for them, but I thought they were joking," he said. "They were not."

On to the pool deck stepped four middle-aged businessmen in board shorts. As part of his speaking engagement, Lezak was going to have to compete against them in a relay race.

"It was crazy," Lezak said.

In front of the employees, Lezak shrugged, stripped, and dove in.

He was required to start behind the men, and swim extra laps, and different strokes, and it was his first swim since his last gold medal, and the pool was only 20 yards long.

"But, hey, I wasn't going to let those four guys beat me," he said.

Entering the last lap, yes, he was once again trailing.

But you can probably guess what happened next.

"At the last minute, I grabbed the guy's leg and pulled him back behind me," he said. "So, yeah, I won again. It was very chill."

Sitting in his condo only days after rescuing an Olympics superstar, the chilled anchor laughed a long, sweet laugh.

In remembering the last month, it is perfectly understandable to mostly remember Michael Phelps.

But shame on us if we somehow forget Jason Lezak.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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