Jewish Olympian Jason Lezak surely has made his mark on U.S. Olympic swimming relay teams, notably with his unfathomable dash in the final 50 meters on Monday to lift the 4×100 men’s freestyle foursome to the gold medal in Beijing and a new world record.
Now Lezak, at 32 the oldest male swimmer ever to qualify for an Olympic team, may have his last shot to earn the individual honors he so craves. The American record holder in the 100 free finished sixth in Wednesday’s semifinals to qualify for the night’s finals.
In his three Olympic Games, Lezak has five medals, including three golds with the one he acquired in his remarkable anchor leg in the Water Cube, but none individually. And while he talked in an interview with JTA a week before the Games about being a “team-type player” and the “amazing feeling” of winning medals in the relays, the Californian savors the chance at redemption in the individual 100 free. He failed to qualify for the finals at the 2004 Games in Athens.
“I took the preliminaries too lightly,” he told me in a phone interview. “I was thinking about how many races I had to swim and I saved too much energy.” Lezak says he learned “a horrible lesson” from Athens, but that it sparked him to keep going for China and “that he had unfinished business.”
His improbable surge in the 4×100 – overtaking the favored French and their one-time world record holder Alain Bernard – helped Michael Phelps in his historic pursuit of eight golds in Beijing. And Lezak will have a tough road to the top of the medal podium against the likes of Bernard, who recaptured the world record in one semifinal, only to see it snatched in the other by the Australian Eamon Sullivan. (Another American Jewish swimmer, Garrett Weber-Gale, did not qualify for the finals.)
In our interview, Lezak said, “To do something on your own feels pretty good. I have a lot to prove to myself. I know I’m capable, I just haven’t done it yet.”
Can he do it tonight? Certainly his anchor leg in the relay shows that anything is possible.