IRVINE, Calif. — Talking about his 46.06 seconds of fame still gives Jason Lezak goose bumps. He admits he has watched video of the stirring race a couple hundred times. Even two years later, grinning people still tap him on the shoulder in airports. They want autographs and photos, and they always have the same question: “How did you do that?”
Even now, Lezak cannot explain how he improbably chased down a heavily favored Frenchman on the last leg of the 4×100-meter relay in Beijing as an entire nation held its breath. His electric finish ensured that Michael Phelps kept alive his quest for eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Games.
“In Beijing, it was a great feeling, a great team,” Lezak said hours before finishing fourth and just 0.09 of a second out of the medals in the 100-meter freestyle final at the Pan Pacific Championships on Thursday night. “But I didn’t really understand what it meant until I came home. People always want to talk about it.
“It was one of those out-of-body experiences. I did something I didn’t know was possible. There was a lot behind it.”
Lezak, who will swim a leg for the U.S. men’s 4×100 relay team here Friday, hopes there’s a lot ahead of it, too. He’s now 34, with lines around his eyes and three Olympics on his resume. He became a father last November, and, when his wife returned to full-time work as a nurse, he also became primary caretaker for his infant son Ryan. He lacks a coach and suit sponsor and makes most of his money giving motivational speeches — talking about the relay, of course.
Yet he is still swimming fast, evidenced by the fact he laid down the second-best time (48.47 seconds) in Thursday morning’s heats of the 100 free, then followed that with a 48.57 in the night’s final, behind only American Nathan Adrian (48.15), Canadian Brent Hayden (48.19) and Brazil’s Cesar Cielo (48.48). “He’s a giant,” U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte said.
“I would have liked to make it to the medal stand, but I’ve got two more years,” Lezak said after the race. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it there.”
Indeed, Lezak is still dreaming of more magical moments in another Olympic Games. Everyone remembers his miracle relay leg. Almost no one remembers he won his only individual Olympic medal — a bronze — in the 100 freestyle in those Games
He’s already cemented his place in American sports lore; now he’d like to create some more good stories.
“I still feel like I can be better,” he said. “I still have that competitive nature in me.”
The competitiveness has been on display during an unexpectedly successful month. Lezak showed up at the national championships here two weeks ago, where he finished third in the 100 freestyle final having raced just twice this year and not very well at that. His wife took time off from her nursing job this summer to allow him to chase a spot at these championships, but before then, he attempted to do the necessary training around her 12-hour nursing shifts.
His swimming, naturally, suffered. He didn’t know what to expect here. Only American Nathan Adrian, 13 years younger than Lezak, went faster Thursday morning, touching the wall in 48.41.
“This year has definitely been a surprise,” Lezak said. “I haven’t been able to do the training I wanted to do…I haven’t been focused on swimming 100 percent like I had been for the last 10 years.”
Lezak’s focus began to drift in the happy aftermath of 2008. Last year, he bypassed a chance to swim at his fourth world championships.
Instead, he accepted an invitation to join more than 1,000 other Jewish U.S. athletes at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv. While most of his U.S. teammates prepared for Rome, Lezak spent six days touring Jerusalem.
“I decided to go to Israel because it was an opportunity I had passed up several times before,” he said. “For me, it was a great opportunity that came about. I thought, instead of racing the top people in the world, I will do something a little different.”
Even there, he couldn’t escape his newfound fame. He was selected to light the torch. He was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. And officials even interrupted a news conference being given by Israeli President Shimon Peres. They let it be known, to Lezak’s embarrassment, that Lezak had arrived to the president’s house.
He said, “It was crazy.”
Lezak said he never gets tired of talking about his amazing relay leg, whether with a nation’s top political leader or a perfect stranger. During one encounter with a grinning bystander, he learned that cheers filled a JetBlue flight when he beat Alain Bernard to the wall in 2008 as nearly all of the passengers and flight crew were watching on the airline’s satellite televisions.
“Things like that make me feel pretty good about what I had done and what it meant for our country,” he said. “I finally felt like I had achieved goals that it took me a long time to get.”