(L-R) Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale pose with the gold medal in the medal ceremony for the men's 4x100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 11, 2008 in Beijing.
ATLANTA – It’s been nearly 10 years since “The Split,” and it’s still as riveting today as it was when Jason Lezak swam the greatest come-from-behind, never-say-die relay leg in history at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008.
Coaches use it as a motivational tool, showing it to young swimmers before a big competition. After all, it’s 46.06 seconds of pure inspiration.
Lezak lived it once as Team USA won the gold medal in the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle and has watched it “a million times,” give or take a few hundred thousand.
It’s still the fastest relay split of all time.
“Whenever I watch it, I still get pumped up,” said Lezak, a four-time Olympian who won eight medals – four golds, two silvers and two bronzes. “It’s pretty amazing to see. I look at it as a spectator vs. myself and it’s awesome.”
How does it make him feel as a spectator? “I get inspired,” he said. “I say, ‘All right. I can do whatever’s coming.’”
Lezak is now 42 and an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation. He is also one of four captains for the USA Swim Squads competing in the Tyr Pro Swim Series, which had a meet in Atlanta last weekend. Lezak’s posters say “46.06. Split That.”
One of the swimmers on his squad is Cody Miller, who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke and gold in the 4x100-meter medley at the Rio Games.
“He said, ‘Hey man, I was at one of your clinics back then and I’ve got this picture with you and I’m trying to find it,’” Lezak said. “It was maybe 2008. It’s kind of cool to see stuff like that.”
Nowadays, he said the kids at his clinics are too young to have watched the Beijing Olympics on television. “The majority,” Lezak said, “their coaches or their parents have them watch it before they come so they knew who they’re going to see. Sometimes I get a show of hands and I’d say 10 percent of the kids put their hand up, ‘I’ve never seen this. I don’t know who you are.’ But it’s all good. They know by the end.
“And it’s fun and they get inspired and that’s what’s great for me.”
A Split To Remember
How could they not be inspired? The date was Aug. 11, 2008, and the setting was Beijing’s colorful “Water Cube” aquatics center.
Lezak was about half a body length behind French swimmer Alain Bernard when he dove in for the anchor leg.
Bernard came into the Games as the world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle, although Australia’s Eamon Sullivan set a new mark on the leadoff leg of the relay.
“He wasn’t just some chump,” Lezak said of Bernard, “so I had to swim pretty well.”
Yet the 32-year-old Team USA captain wasn’t brimming over with confidence.
“I had plenty of negative thoughts throughout that race and I had to talk over it,” Lezak said, “because I really didn’t think I’d be able to catch him.”
And yet he did. Although Lezak was still about three-fourths of a second behind with 50 meters to go, he drew even with about 10 meters left and won by .08 of a second. Led by Team USA with a world record of 3:08.24, the top five teams smashed the existing world record, set by Team USA in the qualifying round.
“Shoot, I swam the best race of my life and I swam a smart race,” Lezak said. “And he had a great race, but he didn’t swim the smartest race. I was able to put everything I had into it and some.”
A new expression was born. In swimming lingo, to get overtaken at the end of a relay became known as being “Lezak-ed.”
His teammates were ecstatic when he touched first. The win not only gave Team USA its first gold in the event since 1996, it also kept Michael Phelps’ hopes for eight gold medals alive. This was only the second event in his campaign to break Mark Spitz’s record.
“There was a lot leading up to that race that a lot of people don’t know,” Lezak said. “My first Olympics in 2000 we lost that race for the first time in Olympic history. I grew up watching that race and the USA dominated and I wanted to be part of that domination.”
Australia defeated Team USA in Sydney, with Ian Thorpe doing to Gary Hall Jr. what Lezak would do to Bernard eight years later.
“They played the air guitar in front of our faces and it was a defining moment,” said Lezak. “And then we lost it again at the next Olympics. Another disappointment there.”
South Africa was the surprising gold medalist in Athens, with the Netherlands taking the silver and Team USA claiming bronze.
“So it wasn’t just about, ‘Let’s go win a race,’” Lezak said. “There was a lot of history behind it. And for me it was pretty important.
“We never had four guys really come together as a team and swim to our abilities. It was always one, two or three guys swam well or OK and there was always a not-so-great swim. I learned basically from our medley relays it takes more than just a couple of guys doing well to make it happen. So as captain, I tried to get these guys focused on doing it together and it seemed to work well.”
Phelps Gets Things Started
Phelps swam the leadoff leg with an American record of 47.51 seconds, although he was behind Sullivan’s 47.24. Then Garrett Weber-Gale gave Team USA the lead. Fred Bousquet of France passed Cullen Jones on the third leg to give Bernard a half-second advantage for the final 100.
And then Lezak set about accomplishing what would be named “Best Moment” at the next ESPYs.
But he couldn’t rest on his laurels. Two days later, Lezak had the preliminaries in the 100 free.
“Basically at 32 years old after that relay, my body was a wreck,” he said. “I didn’t recover. I felt terrible.”
He was also weighed down by thoughts of 2004, when he was the American record holder and ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100 free and made a huge mistake. He took it easy in the preliminaries to save his energy and did not advance.
“So, I knew I couldn’t do that again,” Lezak said, “so I went for it as fast as I could go, but my body just wasn’t feeling good. But I made it, then I had to do the same thing in the semifinals. After swimming now three times and feeling terrible, to be able to step up and still get a bronze medal was really important to me.”
He tied Cesar Cielo of Brazil for the bronze while Bernard won the gold and Sullivan was second. Among Lezak’s eight Olympic medals, this was his only individual one.
“Even though it wasn’t a gold,” Lezak said, “under the conditions, I had to dig down just as deep as I did on the relay, so I was pretty proud that I was able to do that under the circumstances.”
He then anchored the 4x100-meter medley team to another gold.
Although Lezak considered retiring, he came back in 2012 where he was the oldest swimmer on the team at age 36 and won a silver medal by anchoring Team USA in the preliminaries of the 4x100 free.
He sums up his four Olympic Games as “Just happy to be there. And then too many expectations and didn’t perform how I wanted to. And then the best of my career. And then just hanging on for dear life.”
Continuing The Legacy
Lezak finally retired in January 2013. He and his wife Danielle DeAlva, who swam for Mexico in the Olympics, have three children – boys ages 8 and 6 and a girl who is 2. They live in Southern California, where Lezak is an account rep for adidas Swim.
He swims about once a week. “I mainly do it to keep my form,” said Lezak, who coached himself in the final years of his career, “because I still do my swim clinics and I want to make sure I can demonstrate the drills for the kids and show them the right way to do it.”
Though he’s mostly out of the pool, he’s still competitive. Lezak is eager to beat Natalie Coughlin, Lenny Krayzelburg and Kaitlin Sandeno, the other USA Swim Squads captains.
Their next event in the Tyr Pro Swim Series is in Mesa, Arizona, April 12-15 and the competition concludes at the national championships in Irvine, California, in late July.
The winning squad earns $10,000 for charity and Lezak has selected the USA Swimming Foundation.
However, through two meets, his squad is in last place.
“I saw some of my guys and I told them I’m counting on them, no pressure,” Lezak said. “I don’t care where you are in your training. I need you to win.”
Maybe he should show them the video.