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Thrill of competition motivates Lezak
Thrill of competition motivates Lezak
IRVINE – Two-year-old Ryan Lezak lounges in front of the television, semi-glued to the cartoons. His seven-month-old brother, Blake, is content to stand nearby while holding onto a sofa, safely within range of mom. Jason Lezak also is in range, ready to contribute to his home team.
Right on cue, he dishes out the toothpaste for Ryan's Thomas the Train toothbrush.
It's just another morning at home for the legendary swimmer from Irvine. His life has changed since he rallied the U.S. men's 400-meter freestyle relay past France and Alain Bernard for a dramatic world-record victory at the Beijing Olympics.
He is now the father of two young boys, balancing family and world-class swimming.
But some things haven't changed.
And that's why Lezak, 36 and his legacy in the sport cemented, will be racing in Omaha, Neb., at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He feels that familiar urge to race.
"He's got chlorine in his blood," said 1984 Olympian John Mykkanen, who trains with Lezak. "It's part of us."
RACING IN HIS GENES
The constant for Lezak remains his love affair with the sport and the jolt he receives from stepping on a starting block.
"That's why I'm still doing it," he said. "I love to race and get up there and go against the fastest guys in the world and the fastest guys in the country."
Lezak has been doing both longer than most. The sprinter is seeking to make his fourth consecutive U.S. Olympic team.
Michael Phelps also will be vying for a spot on a fourth consecutive team, but he will be 10 years younger than Lezak when he punches his ticket for London.
Lezak already set the record in 2008 for being oldest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for the Games.
But records or medals are not what push Lezak.
"He loves the sport," said Mykkanen, an Orange County product who won a silver medal at the Los Angeles Games. "He is thrilled he can still do this."
Lezak now balances his affinity for swimming with another passion: his family.
His wife, Danielle, has taken a break from being a nurse to lead the childcare duties while Jason hits the pool. But Lezak still makes time for his boys, even when tired.
"It's a challenge to balance it all but he's doing a good job," said Danielle as she holds Blake. "Having our own family has really motivated him to try to succeed in swimming and showing them to go beyond the stereotype (that elite swimmers need to be) in their early 20s. ... Hopefully, the boys will learn something from him."
HEROICS FROM BEIJING LIVE ON
Lezak delivered a masterful lesson of perseverance in the Beijing Games, one that he continues to share.
Going into the anchor leg of the 400 free relay, France and then world-record holder Bernard held a commanding lead.
"I just don't think he can do it," NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines said as Lezak began his race.
But the Irvine High and Irvine Novaquatics product responded by clocking the fastest relay split in history at 46.06 seconds and out-touched Bernard at the wall.
"That might be the most incredible relay split I've ever seen," Gaines gushed after the epic race.
One version of the race has been viewed more than 1.2 million times on YouTube. Lezak has watched the race plenty of times and uses it during motivational talks across the country.
"I did have, actually, a lot of negative thoughts going through my head (during that race)," Lezak said. "(But) I told myself, 'I feel really good. I feel really strong. Swim your race. Do the best you can.' Then I could see myself kind of inching up, little by little. And I got that feeling that this (comeback) is possible.
"With 15 meters to go, I had an extra surge of adrenaline, something that I've never had before. ... I was able to keep that speed all the way to the wall and thank goodness Bernard died like a dog."
Part of the lore of the race is that it kept alive Phelps' pursuit of a record-eight gold medals. Lezak said he never received any special reward from Phelps for his heroics but he also wasn't looking for one.
Lezak said he was driven to snap the Americans' losing streak in the event, a drought that spanned the 2000 and 2004 Games.
"I felt like it was just something that we had to do together, to bring it (the race) back for (the) USA," said Lezak, a seven-time Olympic medalist. "It was a special moment.
CHALLENGES AWAIT BUT LEGACY SET
Lezak faces more challenges in Omaha.
He enters the Trials tied for 91st in the world this year in the 50 free (22.75) and tied for 124th in the 100 free (49.96). Among Americans, he is 11h this year in the 50 and tied for 16th in 100 free.
Those rankings won't generate much buzz. Only the two-top finishers qualify to swim the event in London. The 100 free also is a qualifier for the 400 free relay, so a top-six finish also could lead Lezak to London.
"I feel like I have a good shot," he said. "People weren't talking about me last time. People always said, 'He's too old. Time to move on. Do something else.' I really don't care. ... I know what I'm capable of."
Mykkanen said Lezak – who continues to trains without a coach – has worked hard for Trials.
"He's zeroed in," Mykkanen said. "He knows what he is doing."
Lezak has plenty to fall back on if he falls short in Omaha. His young family is just starting its journey. And his legacy in the sport is set thanks to his relay anchor in Beijing.
"It's going to be hard to do something more spectacular than that," Lezak admitted. "It was a once in a lifetime position to be in. I could be put there a thousand more times and maybe it doesn't happen. ... I'll probably always be known for that (race) and I'm OK with that."
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