COLUMBIA, Mo. Almost four years have passed since Jason Lezak became an international star, but he slid into a chair with a green towel wrapped around his chest knowing there is more work to be done to realize another Olympics dream.
His comeback in the 400-meter freestyle relay to edge France's Alain Bernard at the Beijing Games kept Michael Phelps' hopes alive for a record eight gold medals. Since, Lezak has learned to balance fame with focus in his attempt to earn a fourth Olympics appearance.
Last Saturday, a plastic ice pack was placed around Lezak's right knee after he climbed from the pool at the Mizzou Aquatic Center following a second-place finish in a 50-meter freestyle heat. The Missouri Grand Prix was his first competitive meet in six months he finished third in the 50-meter freestyle and seventh in the 100-meter freestyle and he wanted to use to experience to learn more about his progress in advance of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials to be held June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb. At age 36, his body has changed from his world-record 46.06-second split in Beijing, but the veteran swimmer is confident in his speed as he trains for London.
The time since Lezak, Phelps, Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale stunned the French team and created one of the lasting memories of the Beijing Games has changed the Irvine, Calif., resident. He has learned to juggle appearances made possible by the relay victory with work toward remaining one of the world's best athletes in the water. He admits he has experienced fatigue from his time in the spotlight, but lessons learned since returning from China have inspired him.
"The only thing that changed was that I got a lot busier," Lezak said. "I was definitely doing a lot more things. It was a little tiring. I've been trying to balance that I have training, I have my family, I have two kids now. I've been learning to balance that with the appearances and the swim meets. It has been tough."
Lezak's busy schedule is possible because of one of the best moments in U.S. swimming history. He trailed Bernard by nearly a body length as the two leaders made the final turn at the Water Cube well ahead of world-record pace. By that point, most anticipated a second-place result was the best finish the Americans could hope for.
"I just don't think he can do it," said Rowdy Gaines, an NBC commentator and three-time gold-medal winner at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, as Lezak trailed Bernard. "He's trying to ride that wave as much as possible."
Turns out, Lezak had doubts as well. He saw Bernard's lead as he approached the wall for the turn. He considered easing the chase and settling for the silver medal. But, as Weber-Gale recalls the story, Lezak thought to himself, "Man, this is the Olympics. I've got to go for it."
Lezak, then 32, did go for it. What happened next created a place in Olympics lore for the oldest man on the U.S. swimming team.
Lezak began his charge with about 25 meters left, when he trailed Bernard by about half a body length. He churned through the waves, inching closer toward Bernard with each stroke before beating the muscular Frenchman by a fingertip. Phelps and Jones screamed. Weber-Gale flexed. Lezak climbed from the pool, and all four Americans embraced.
"I think he learned that anything is possible that never to give up at the end of a race like that," Weber-Gale said. "He understands that comebacks are possible and that you can win races at the end. It's kind of a surreal thing, actually. People talk about (the Beijing relay race), of course. I've seen the video of the race. It's hard to put your finger on exactly what that feels like and what it means. It's hard to grasp that I was in that. It's just kind of an out-of-body experience."
Said Eddie Reese, U.S. swimming coach at the Beijing Games: "Jason had the big-time split. He had the catch-the-guy and go-by-the-guy opportunity. There may not have been anybody else on that team that could have done that."
The rally taught Lezak how much the United States valued the team's resilience. The comeback was captured in countless articles, magazine photos and even an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The seven-time Olympic medalist said he overtook Bernard because he never lost hope.
Still, the time since the Beijing Games has forced Lezak to keep faith in his talent. Each year has made him evaluate his body and adjust his training. Since he is almost two decades older than some of his competitors, he searches for ways to improve his technique while keeping his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame in shape.
Beyond the pool, Lezak has managed financial challenges in the past three years. He was without a corporate endorsement shortly after the Beijing Games, because a six-figure contract with Nike expired after the company pulled out of the swimming business following a decision not to compete with Speedo. The recession also limited Lezak's income from the motivational speakers circuit, through which he earns between 10,000 and 20,000 per appearance.
But Lezak gained financial security in the past 14 months. In December 2010, he signed with Finis, a California-based swim equipment company that has worked with U.S. swimming. The contract's details were not disclosed when announced, but he was reportedly searching for a 200,000 annual deal.
"He's able to endure in our sport longer than a lot, because he's got the relays," said Dave Salo, the men's and women's swimming coach at USC, who mentored Lezak from 1990 through 2006. "He has always been such an important relay member of the national team. He takes a lot of pride in that. It's not something to cower from. He endures, because he knows there aren't a bunch of 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds coming to take his spot."
That self-confidence allows Lezak to consider a future in swimming beyond London. He says he does not know what his goals will be after the Olympics. But he enjoys competing he has risen in the sport from a relative unknown before 1998 and he does not see himself getting slower.
"I don't know if there's any reason for me to retire if I'm still enjoying it," Lezak said before continuing his training at the Mizzou Aquatic Center.
Love for a sport that made him an international star is evident as he approaches the four-year anniversary of a comeback that will be preserved in Olympics history. A fingertip victory changed Lezak's life. But his work is not complete.