Lezak's moment of transcendence
We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
BEIJING -- There is a moment (or so we are told) when a mother, seeing her baby in mortal danger, is capable of performing an act of strength that defies human limitations.
To put the 100-meter freestyle relay leg of Jason Lezak in that context, the guy is one tough mother.
Maybe the perspective from the aerie of the press tribune at the far end of the Water Cube is different than the HD Phelps-alooza you were treated to back in the United States, but this is what I saw: as swimmers made the turn after 50 meters, it appeared there was no way Lezak could catch Alain Bernard, a Frenchman with shoulders wider than a transom and more than a soupçon of arrogance. Bernard was the world-record holder in the 100 free when the race had begun fewer than three minutes earlier, and Lezak was, well, Lezak. He was Anchorman. Lezak had been a more than serviceable closer on American relay teams, but he never had won an individual medal in three Olympics. (He would rectify it later, earning a bronze in the 100 free, a race won by the swaggering Bernard.) There was nothing in Lezak's past, or present, that would suggest he was capable of transcendence, of a desperate mother moment.
Despite some visible-to-the-naked eye gains on Bernard, with 25 meters remaining Lezak looked like he would run out of swimming pool. He later would say that he was thinking it doesn't matter how much it hurt because he was representing the United States of America and had to push -- this would be the most extraordinary window into an athletes' mind opened to journalists during these Olympics -- and so he pushed. In the final five meters, Lezak seemed to be almost even with the Frenchman. When they hit the touch pad, they turned quickly and saw on the scoreboard that the U.S. had nipped France by .08 of a second. Lezak's split time had been 46.07, the fastest in history by about three-quarters of a second.
On the pool deck, Michael Phelps, who had swum the opening leg, erupted in a paroxysm of collegial joy. This would be his second gold medal in Beijing -- I suspect you know how that story turned out -- but he knew it would not be his moment. Lezak's swim was Bucky Dent's home run, David Tyree's Super Bowl catch, Jack Fleck's U.S. Open.
This was the triumph of The Other Guy. This was the victory of all of us.