Whenever he’s near water, Jason Lezak usually is asked about that race.
You know, the one where Lezak swam that relay split for the ages, the relay that landed Michael Phelps the second of his record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In the past 13 years, Lezak has never grown weary of telling that story, and others, to those who share his passion for swimming. Especially the swim club kids who may be struggling to meet their goals.
“It’s great to share experiences, and I like to share the good and the bad,” Lezak said. “So not just about the relay, but I had some struggles. I didn’t always succeed.
“So it’s a good story to be able to tell the kids, especially when they’re down and out and they feel like they’re going to quit, like I did at one point. That’s fun for me, as well.”
Lezak is in Omaha this week to watch the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials at the CHI Health Center. This is his second trip back to Omaha as a Trials spectator. His final two Olympic Trials as a participant — in 2008 and 2012 — were in Omaha.
He’s enjoying these Trials even more than he did in 2016.
“In ’16, because I guess I was freshly retired, it was that feeling of I miss the racing, I wanted to get out there,” Lezak said. “But it’s been long enough now that I’ve seen enough swimming, I don’t miss it per se in that aspect, but I still get the goose bumps watching this.
“This is the Olympic Trials. This is a big deal. These people get to go and represent their country. That feeling is really indescribable unless you’re out there and you’ve done it. There’s been some really close races; it’s been really exciting.”
Additional attention has been coming Lezak’s way the past week since Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, debuted a documentary titled “The Greatest Race” on June 10. It’s the story of one of the most stirring swimming races in Olympic history.
In 2008 the Americans were told there was no way they would beat France in the 400-meter freestyle relay. One French swimmer said their goal was to “smash” the Americans.
Team USA was trailing going into the anchor leg, a spot Lezak held for several years for both the 400 free and 400 medley relay quartets. France’s Alain Bernard increased the lead in the first 50 before Lezak roared back and beat him to the wall.
Lezak’s 46.06 split remains the fastest in the history of the event.
“46.06 split for Lezak,” NBC’s Dan Hicks told viewers. “What a clutch, fast swim when they needed it.”
While Lezak has been spending time in USA Swimming’s Aqua Lounge in the CHI Health Center’s convention center, people have been stopping to shake his hand, take a picture with him and ask about that historic swim.
Whether he’s just watching a meet or conducting a clinic, Lezak said, the subject pops up.
“Not daily, but when I’m around at swimming events like this, there are going to be people who know about it,” Lezak said. “Because they just released that Peacock documentary, I think a lot of people saw that and they’ve been talking to me about it, so that’s great.
“It’s just something that’s been a part of me, and it will probably always be a part of me.”
Lezak made a final Olympics appearance at the 2012 London Games after finishing sixth at the 2012 Trials. He was part of the quartet that earned a silver medal in the 400 free relay.
When Lezak was asked if it was his body that made him decide to call it a career, he was ready with the answer almost before the question was finished.
“That’s exactly what it was,” Lezak said. “My body had enough. It was really hard, actually, leading up to 2008. I was 32 and I was already adapting and learning how to train at that age. Then each year it just got harder and harder. I wasn’t able to do the things that I knew I needed to do to be successful.
“I was still trying to figure it out and just do enough to get by. Basically that’s what I was able to do. I snuck my way on to the Olympic team, which was really exciting. I honestly didn’t think I had a shot going into it based on how I had been swimming coming into the Trials.”
Lezak was basically training on his own at the end of his career. He knew the coach at Rose Bowl Aquatics, who decided that it would sponsor Lezak, and Lezak did things to support the team.
“That’s what I did the last six years of my swimming career,” Lezak said. “It was great. But like I said, to go and inspire some of the younger swimmers and be able to share stories with them, it’s always fun for me.”
He has not competed since retiring.
Up until COVID struck in 2020, Lezak was putting on his clinics across the country and around the world. He’s also the general manager of the Cali Condors, a team in the professional International Swim League.
“It’s really exciting for these swimmers to get opportunities, especially during this last year, when a lot of meets were shut down,” Lezak said. “They got to race, they got to train. You can see around the world how well people are swimming, and a lot of that had to do with giving them opportunities.”