Four years after historic U.S. relay, Lezak yearning for newest medal
U.S. veteran Jason Lezak will likely claim a spot on the Americans' 4x100 relay
Lezak's famous anchor leg in Beijing helped secure Michael Phelps's seventh gold
Now the 36-year-old faces a tougher task for the U.S. to medal in London
OMAHA, Neb. -- Jason Lezak needed a little help. The man who rescued Michael Phelps's bid for eight gold medals in Beijing four years ago with that impossible, come-from-waaay-behind, fastest-in-history anchor leg that beat France's Alain Bernard on the final stroke for a 4x100 free relay victory for the U.S. and a seventh gold for Phelps -- that guy -- was struggling in the final 25 meters of the men's 100 free final at the Olympic Trials in Omaha. Having been granted a second chance at gaining a finals berth when Ryan Lochte scratched out of the final, Lezak needed one more assist. A right-side breather swimming in Lane 8, he couldn't see anybody and was starting to tire at the 75-meter mark. He needed somebody to chase. "I'm a competitor," says the now 36-year-old Lezak. "I closed my eyes, thought about four years ago and I saw the ghost of Bernard ahead of me. I had to think of something and that was the first thought that came into my head."
Just like four years ago, he passed Bernard on the final strokes. Lezak touched the wall in 48.88, good for sixth place and a likely spot on his fourth Olympic 4x100 free relay.
Now comes the hard part. When Michael Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, says there's little chance the swimming superstar will win eight gold medals in London, the 4 x100 free relay may be Exhibit A. None of the times delivered by the top six in the 100 freestyle final , who will all be part of the relay pool in London, were really eye-popping. Nathan Adrian won it in a time of 48.10. Cullen Jones was second in 48.46, followed by Matt Grevers (48.55), Ricky Berens (48.80) Jimmy Feigen (48.84) and Lezak. Ryan Lochte, who swam a 48.91 in the semis before scratching, and Michael Phelps, who hit a 48.49 in March, will also be in the relay pool. "We have to improve some," says U.S. men's head coach Gregg Troy. "Those times aren't good enough. But I think the length of the meet has impacted performances. These guys will get better."
The Americans' battle won't just be for the gold medal, they'll have a fight just to make the podium. The Australians will be heavily favored, and the Russians and French are still very strong. Failing to medal would be a first: Aside from the US-boycotted 1980 Games, the U.S. has won a medal in every Olympic 4x100 freestyle relay since the event debuted in 1964 -- seven straight golds followed by a silver in 2000 and a bronze in 2004. In 2008, the U.S. was underdog to the French before toppling them.
"We're no further from the Australians now than we were from the French four years ago," says Troy.
Some might disagree. Australia has two sprinters who have broken 48 seconds this year, including 20-year-old world champion James Magnussen, who has done it five times in the last 12 months -- more than any swimmer in history. At the Australian Olympic trials in March, Magnussen won the final with a 47.10, followed by James Roberts (47.63), Matt Targett (48.32) and Eamon Sullivan (48.53).
The U.S. has nobody who has broken 48 seconds in a textile suit. ."We're behind," says Lezak. "We were behind last time too. You never know what's going to happen. In the past we've been the team to beat and we didn't come through. What really matters is four guys stepping up and doing the absolute best on that day. You can't always say just because you have the four fastest guys you're going to win."
Grevers, who loves the 4x100 free relay so much that he scratched out of the 200 back semifinals tonight so he could secure a spot among the top six in tonight's final, agrees. "On paper, (the competition) looks intimidating, but you never know what can happen when a relay starts," he says. "People can drop seconds. I think that's what we have to hope for -- another Lezak-type relay. Four Lezaks up there pumping away would be great."
The man whose name has become shorthand for out-of-your-mind performance may not make the relay final; he may not even be chosen to swim the preliminaries. But he is now just the second man -- Phelps is the other -- to make a fourth Olympic team. And that is a relief. "I was really nervous," said Lezak after the final. "No doubt this was a big race for me. I've trained four years for this. Nobody understands how hard it has been for me except my wife and I. It's a pretty good accomplishment to get sixth place. It's like how I started. I made the first (Olympic) team on a relay then made individual events and now I'm finishing my last one on a relay. It's a great feeling. Hopefully I can be a team leader and help these guys swim fast. It's been a really tough run to make it here. I'm actually really surprised that I swam faster than last night. I felt terrible. This 36-year-old body was run down."
Fortunately, that jaw-dropping performance by his 32-year-old body is only a YouTube search away. "It was incredible," he says of the Beijing 4x100 free relay. "I watch it all the time. It's a great memory that no one will ever be able to take away from me. But I've got to move forward. I'm going to another Olympics."