a splash of gold

Jason Lezak Chronicle Photograph

SEAN SPERRY/CHRONICLE
Olympian Jason Lezak describes his accomplishments as a U.S. swimmer and his world record-setting leg of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay in the Beijing Olympics, Saturday at Montana State University’s Shroyer Gym.

A SPLASH OF GOLD

7-time Olympic medalist Lezak shares accomplishments, disappointments with Bozeman

“It’s inspiring to see someone who worked hard to get where they are.  That’s why we’re here.”
— Heidi Henry, one of 800 spectators at Shroyer Gym.

February 1, 2009

By TIM DUMAS
Chronicle Sports Editor

For five minutes, it was Aug. 11.  And Jason Lezak was converting doubters again.

A crowd of 800 was quieted to a hush Saturday when the lights were dimmed and all eyes were peeled to a video screen – just as they were on those summer nights five months ago when the routine across America went something like this: eat, sleep, watch swimming.

The gathering at Montana State University’s Shroyer Gym had come to hear Lezak speak, maybe collect an autograph.  Before he was introduced, however, the most memorable moment from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games was flashed on the screen: the 4×100-meter relay.

Swimming in front of a world-wide television audience – and then-President Bush, who was in Beijing for the event – Lezak launched into the last leg of the race.  And he was behind.

The hopes of America winning the relay, which would have kept Michael Phelps’ chances of winning a record eight gold medals, were beginning to fade.

Even NBC’s commentators were pessimistic.

“I just don’t think he can do it,” Rowdy Gaines says on the tape.

Then this from Dan Hicks: “They should get the silver medal …

“And here comes Lezak!” were the last words heard.

Fast forward to Saturday, when the cheers at Shroyer drown out the rest of the tape.

After his introduction to a standing ovation, Lezak stood behind a podium and shared his story of ups and downs.  Sure he has seven Olympic medals, but the tall Californian with short-cropped hair made a point of listing his disappointments.

Like his first appearance at an Olympic Trials, in 1996, when he finished second to last.  He admitted to being “scared” beforehand, saying, “I took myself out of the race before it even started.”

Or the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where an American member of the 4×1 team had said, “we’re going to smash the Australians like guitars.”  Thirteen U.S. Olympic 4×1 victories in a row can lead to such bravado, but Lezak was part of the team that broke the streak, finishing second.

The worst part, Lezak said, came after the race, when the Americans had to look over at the Aussies, who were celebrating by strumming air guitars.

“We blew it,” Lezak told the crowd.  “We lost the race for the USA.”

Lezak also spoke of how he got hooked on swimming.  A trip to the nearby 1984 Los Angeles games to watch one of his childhood heroes, Matt Biondi, was all it took.  The 6-foot-4 Lezak also aspired to play professional basketball: his other idol was Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers.

But slicing through water at an elite level quickly became his focus.  He began competitive swimming at age 5 and became an All-American water polo player as a high schooler in Irvine, Calif.

After the disappointment at the ’96 Trials, Lezak won his first national title and has won at least one medal at every Olympics since 2000.  And while he is proud to have finally won an individual medal – he took the bronze in the 100 freestyle in Beijing – that comeback relay he swam to catch a French team that had talked its own trash has become his legacy.

It’s why he made his first appearance in Montana and it’s why he will spend one day at home in California before jetting to Orlando, Fla., on Monday for another engagement.

“It’s been fun,” he told the Chronicle before Saturday’s event, the 4×1 gold medal resting on his lap. “It’s harder than what I’m used to, but it’s been fun.”

And that race is why the Shroyer bleachers were nearly full.

“We were pretty into the summer Olympics,” said Heidi Henry, who attended with her daughter Lindy.  “It’s pretty inspiring, especially for young people to come out and see someone who worked hard to get to where they are.  That’s why we’re here.”

Lindy Henry isn’t a swimmer, “just a fan,” she said.  But she was among the many who were enthralled over the summer.

“We were standing in the living room just screaming at the TV,” she said.  “You always want to watch the Olympics.  This year it was extra special because it was so exciting.”

Lezak, 33, says there are possible book deals in his future and he hopes to soon select a charity to promote.  But he’ll do his best to keep his new busy life from getting in the way of swimming at the highest level.  His goal is to compete in a fourth Olympics, at the 2012 London games – and to keep proving people wrong.

“A lot of people say I’m maybe passed my prime; they said that before these (Olympic) games and I showed them, and I still feel like I can do it,” Lezak said.  “Regardless if I go there and win a bunch of medals, right now the focus is to go and make that team (in 2012).”

Tim Dumas can be reached at tdumas@ dailychronicle.com and 582-2651.

REPRINTED AND RETRANSMITTED WITH THE PERMISSION OF THE BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE.

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