— Usain Bolt wasn’t the only man in Beijing last summer to cover 100 meters under his own power faster than anyone ever had before. The other man who made locomotive history isn’t nearly as well remembered, but he should be. Without him, Michael Phelps doesn’t beat Mark Spitz, doesn’t win eight gold medals and isn’t the greatest swimmer who ever lived.
If you watched the Olympics, you’re heard of him. But there’s a good chance you don’t remember his name. You should. It’s Jason Lezak.
Lezak is my sports hero of this year and a lot of other years. In a sport that celebrates individual achievements, Lezak is the most anonymous of competitors, a specialist in swimming freestyle legs in relay events.
Even in the swimming world, Lezak makes few waves. He was 32 in Beijing, already an old-timer in his sport. A Californian, he was also the only team member who doesn’t have a private coach.
Even when he wins a gold medal, as he did once in Athens and twice in Beijing, you’ll never find his name in a headline. That distinction goes either to the team or its most celebrated member.
In both 2004 and 2008, that headliner was Phelps. He’s the star, the man whose greatness has made him a wealthy celebrity — and rightly so. But I’m sure that Phelps shares my opinion of Lezak. Without him, Phelps is one medal short of the record books.
On Aug. 11 in the Water Cube in Beijing, Lezak swam the fastest 100 meters ever recorded in the final of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. But the raw time isn’t what made his performance heroic. What elevated it to that level was the fact that he had to swim that fast to win the race.
Despite the presence of Phelps on the team that also included Garret Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones, Lezak was a full body length behind Alain Bernard of Team France when he hit the water. This was a surprise to American observers, but not to the swimming community. It was known going in that France was going to be tough to beat. Bernard had even indulged in some trash talking before the race, saying he and his teammates were going to torpedo Phelps and the mighty Americans.
Bernard maintained his lead through the turn after the first 50-meter lap. And at 25 meters, he led by half a body length. It should have been an insurmountable lead, but it wasn’t. In the final meter of the race, Lezak caught Bernard and touched the wall approximately seven inches ahead of him.
Phelps thrust his arms in the air and let out a mighty whoop when the times flashed on the scoreboard, confirming that the Americans had won by .08 seconds and that Lezak had swum the fastest 100 meters ever recorded.
Lezak collected another gold medal swimming the freestyle leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay in which Phelps also participated. And then he slipped back into relative obscurity.
Don’t let that happen. Keep repeating his name and spreading the story about Jason Lezak, the man who swam the fastest 100 meters ever, not for himself and not even for Michael Phelps, but for his team and for his country.