Jason Lezak stretches prior to swimming in preliminary heat 16 of the Men's 100 m Freestyle during Day Four of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials.
Jason Lezak is a 100-meter freestyle specialist who became the man of the hour at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 when he anchored the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay to a come-from-behind win, swimming the fastest freestyle relay leg ever at the time and helping Michael Phelps win eight Olympic gold medals in one Games.
But that is just one of many races in which the four-time Olympian excelled. From the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney to the 2012 Games in London, Lezak helped Team USA win seven medals in the freestyle and medley relays. And in Beijing, he won an individual Olympic medal: bronze in the 100-meter freestyle.
Lezak retired from competitive swimming after the London Games in 2012 and is now the general manager of the Cali Condors, one of 10 teams in the International Swimming League. The Cali Condors won the ISL championship title in 2020, with team member Caeleb Dressel taking MVP honors. Cali Condor Lilly King also won MVP honors during regular season ISL meets.
Given his vast experience, we asked Lezak for his perspective on swimmers to watch at the upcoming U.S. Olympic Team Trials—Swimming.
Olympic Veterans To Watch
Dressel and King are two stand-outs from the Cali Condors who should do well at Trials, said Lezak. Since helping Team USA win Olympic gold medals in the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays in Rio, Dressel has won 11 world championship titles. He goes to Tokyo as the reigning world champion in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and 100 butterfly. And he holds the world record in the 100 fly at 49.50.
“He's probably the most dominant in the 100 fly,” said Lezak. “I believe he’s a second faster than the second fastest swimmer in the world.
“The 100 free he definitely has more competition,” added Lezak. “There's a handful of people within a half a second, one of them [Australia’s Kyle Chalmers] he barely beat at the world championships, so I think that'll probably be his most challenging race out of the 50 free, 100 free, 100 Fly. I’m not saying he's going win for sure, but I think the 50 free and 100 Fly look like easier wins than the 100 freestyle.”
King is the defending Olympic gold medalist and two-time defending world champion in the 100 breaststroke and is now coming on strong in the 200 breaststroke.
Lezak also sees Melanie Margalis as “a player in a few events” at trials. Margalis won an Olympic gold medal in Rio as part of the women’s 4x200 freestyle relay team. Since then, the all-arounder has become the U.S.’s top 400 individual medley swimmer and is currently ranked third in the world in that event.
He also pointed out that 2016 Olympian Olivia Smoliga, typically a 100 backstroker, did very well in a 200-meter freestyle recently “and surprised a lot of people.” Smoliga is currently the second-ranked 200 free swimmer behind Katie Ledecky, who won Olympic gold in the 200 free in Rio.
Then there’s 2016 Olympian Hali Flickinger, the U.S.’s top 200 butterflier right now: “Obviously she's going be a tough one to beat in the 200 fly, and she can possibly win a gold medal [in Tokyo] too.”
“A lot of superstars on my team are going do really well in the trials,” Lezak concluded.
Up-and-comers To Watch
Behind these Olympic stars, Lezak sees several young up-and-comers who could challenge for spots on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, especially in the women’s 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly, like teens Torri Huske and Claire Curzan—currently the two top-ranked 100 freestyle and 100 fly sprinters in the U.S.
Huske, 18, from Virginia, broke Mary T. Meagher’s national age group record in the 100 fly during the summer of 2019 (the record had stood for 38 years). Huske also won five world junior championship medals that summer.
Curzan, 16, from North Carolina, swam the second-fastest 100 fly for an American woman as a 15-year-old. Going to trials, she is ranked third in the world in the event. Curzan is also a talented 100 freestyler and is a favorite to make the 4x100 free relay team for Tokyo. She can swim 100 backstroke too.
As for up-and-coming men, Lezak pointed out that “it’s a little more challenging for 18-and-unders to compete with the men [in swimming].”
Asked if the field in swimming is getting deeper, Lezak agreed that it is.
“I'm a little biased because I’m a 100 freestyle specialist,” he started. “People would say, ‘Oh, it's so easy to make the relay at the Olympics, they take the top six.’ And I'd look at the top six and the top six were about as close as the top two in other events. So I've always thought the 100 freestyle is one of the deepest events.
“But now looking around, all events are really deep, from first to eighth in a final is a lot closer than it used to be, and it's just getting better and better over time.”
For example, at the 2017 world championships, from the 100-meter freestyle to the 1,500 free, the top three men finished within one to two seconds of each other. By comparison, a decade ago at the 2011 world championships—the last worlds for Lezak—the 100 freestyle podium was separated by almost a second-and-a-half while the top three finishers in the 1,500 free were over 11 seconds apart.
So what’s driving this depth? Is it veterans sticking around for two or three Olympic cycles?
“I definitely think that has to do with it,” agreed Lezak. “And part of it is just people are getting faster in general, so there's more inspiration and there's more kids swimming. When more talented swimmers swim, you're going to have faster people.”
Swimming’s increased popularity is also driving improved depth.
“You're getting more people involved [in swimming] who might have done baseball or basketball, football, or whatever other sport before,” he explained, “and now they're swimming, so we’re getting a lot more high level swimmers.”
The Effect Of The ISL
The International Swimming League debuted in 2019, with almost weekly meets during the fall. Despite the pandemic, season two ran last fall. Has this new racing outlet changed swimming?
“Yes, definitely,” said Lezak.
Until the ISL came along, post-collegiate and pro swimmers only had a handful of swim meets each year. Now the ISL has given them a season of weekly meets.
“When they competed in college, they were racing all the time,” pointed out Lezak. “Once you finish college, it turns into racing hardly ever. So I think this brings back that college environment of racing often.”
The excitement of the ISL also breaks up the monotony of training.
“It gets these guys motivated and excited to swim fast when they might not feel 100 percent,” said Lezak. “A lot of times when they don't feel 100 percent out of competition that doesn't mean anything. They don't put the same effort into [training]. So now they're learning to put in that 110 percent effort even when they don't feel well, which is going to help them in the long term when they are fully rested and ready to swim at the trials or Olympic Games.”
Will U.S. swimmers dominate the Olympic podium again in Tokyo?
At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, U.S. swimmers stood on the podium in almost every event. But they were less dominant at the 2019 world championships. And looking at ISL results, swimmers from other countries were regularly on the podium. Are other countries starting to catch up to American swimmers?
Perhaps. But Lezak is not worried.
“I think other countries are catching up,” he said. “But they just don't have the same kind of depth we have, where you might find one or two really good swimmers from a country, but we have 40 Olympians that are all really, really good. We will still win a lot of medals, we still probably will win the most gold medals, the most overall medals, but maybe not by as much as it used to be.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Top to bottom, the U.S. is still going to be by far the best team.”
As For The Relays …
The U.S. men once dominated the 4x100 freestyle relay, winning in every Olympiad from the event’s Olympic debut in 1964 until 2000. Since the Sydney Games, the U.S. has only won twice—in 2008 thanks to Lezak’s anchor leg and again in 2016. The U.S. women have not won the event since the 2000 Olympic Games.
As for the 4x200 free relay, bot the U.S. men and women are defending Olympic champions. But this relay could become tougher for the Americans to win.
“As countries are catching up in certain events, they're also catching up in relays,” said Lezak. “You start breaking times down, and it's not going to be as easy to win certain relays as it used to be.”
The storied medley relay will likely be a close race. The U.S. men are undefeated in this event at the Olympic Games. At the Olympic Games Athens 2004, Lezak anchored the U.S. to the gold medal and a world record.
“On the men’s side, not to say they’re in trouble, but there are some countries that are really going to be a factor [in the medley relay], where it used to be, I remember in 2004, we won that race by three seconds,” he said.
“So [the relays] are going to be a little different this year, and it’s going to take all four guys and girls to fire on all cylinders to be able to win them all.”
Lezak is still optimistic and excited to watch both the trials and Olympic Games.
“As much as we talk about maybe the U.S. won’t be as dominant, I’m confident that they’re going to do really well,” he concluded. “It still brings a lot of joy to me as a former swimmer and an American to be able to watch them and see how well they will do and cheer them on.”