Jason Lezak Decides to Retire at 37; Will Be Remembered for “The Anchor”

For the last two Olympics, American swimmer Jason Lezak was the oldest man on the United States Olympic Swim Team. Having no desire to make it a third, the 37-year old Lezak has officially announced his retirement today, wrapping a spectacular career that has spanned four Olympics and 8 medals (4 gold, 2 silver, and 2 bronze).

Lezak, though, was more to the American team than just a collection of 8 medals. He was one of the great leaders in swimming history, and gave the sport a moment it will never forget: the final leg of the 2008 Beijing 400 free relay.

Lezak anchors the 4x100 free relay, nearly a second behind Bernard at the 2008 Olympics. (Credit: Lahalle/Presse)

Lezak anchors the 4×100 free relay, nearly a second behind Bernard at the 2008 Olympics. (Credit: Lahalle/Presse)

Not that any fans need reminding of this relay, but Lezak hit the water nearly a body-length behind France’s Alain Bernard, who was the World Record holder and swimming as well as any sprinter we’ve ever seen. It looked like the French would have the race in the bag, even headed into the final 50 meters. Then, Lezak unfathomably turned on his ever-incredible engine and ran down the Frenchman.

In itself, this swim was one of the top 3 moments in swimming history, unquestionably, and without accepting of any debate. Adding in what his teammate Michael Phelps was in the midst of accomplishing, with his record-setting 8 Olympic gold medal performance, and this swim was elevated into another stratosphere as the greatest, and most iconic swimming moment ever.

Michael Phelps roars in celebration after Lezak's heroic anchor leg at the 2008 Olympics. (Credit: Martin/Presse)

Michael Phelps roars in celebration after Lezak’s heroic anchor leg at the 2008 Olympics. (Credit: Martin/Presse)

“No matter how my individual performances went at worlds, Olympics, and so on, I always wanted to step up on relays for the team and our country,” Lezak said. “The 400 free relay was one of the greatest moments of my career. I was apart of 6 consecutive years (1999-2004) of losing that relay at international competitions after the USA had never lost before, which included 2 Olympics. It felt great to bring the title back to the USA.”

Lezak is a Southern California boy, born and bred, from Irvine High School through his independent training grounds at Rose Bowl Aquatics. For a man who was such a leader and so looked-up-to within the National Team, he still amazingly trained himself over his last two Olympics without a coach or a training partner.

The relay swim is what he will perhaps be best remembered for by swim fans; athletes, though, always have their own favorite moments, and in a career as long as this one was, there were plenty of higlights. For Lezak, one year that stood out was in 2004, before he achieved his lofty legendary status when he broke the American Record in the 100 free.

Lezak wins individual hardware in the 100 free at the 2008 Olympics.

Lezak wins individual hardware in the 100 free at the 2008 Olympics.

“I swam faster than my childhood idol Matt Biondi for the first time in that race,” Lezak reminisced about his great career. “That’s a moment I’ll never forget. I also often think back on another swim from Beijing, where I won my first Olympic medal (bronze in the 100 free, tied with Cesar Cielo). I’d been 4th or 5th over-and-over again at big international competitions, and that swim finally broke me through.”

He was a unique man. In 2009, when he sat atop the heap as one of the world’s great stars of swimming, Lezak skipped the World Championships to instead represent the United States at the 2009 Maccabiah Games. “This is the perfect time in my career to do something like this,” he said of the decision.

That was a big moment for Lezak. He was very proud of his Jewish heritage, and stands among the greatest Jewish swimmers of all time. That’s no short list, either, including names like Mark Spitz, Dara Torres, Garrett Weber-Gale, and Lenny Krayzelburg.

He almost retired after 2008. His agent, Evan Morgenstein, says he was “very close.”

The two had a very special relationship, so this is a big moment for Morgenstein as well. “He was one of my first athletes and we got to grow up in the sport together, we traveled all over the world together. I think that’s one of the things that makes Jason very special to me as a client.”

“[After Beijing] we weren’t sure about an apparel deal, he was doing a lot of speeches but the economy tanked within 60 days of the Beijing Games’ end,” Morganstein said. “We kept discussing whether or not we actually needed Jason in the water competing to do speeches, clinics, etc. We ultimately decided that Jason still had a passion, and that more than the money was why he decided that he was going to try and make the 2012 team. Winning an individual medal I think was a big part of it.”

Lezak would go on to win one more medal, a silver on the 400 free relay, to cap his career. He will now step away to impart decades of experience and wisdom with others through clinics, motivational speaking, and plans to start his own series of swim camps.

For all of his accomplishments, whenever anybody thinks the name “Lezak,” their mind will always go back to that one illustrious swim, that one moment, where he took down the mighty French. He’s become so pervasive that he’s even been verbified – if you get run down at the end of a relay, you’ve been ‘Lezak’ed’. Swimming seasons, swimming careers, are long and grueling. As a sport, we live for those incredible moments, at the end of a season, at the end of a quadrenial, at the end of a decade of work; those moments that give us chills in our spines and bring tears to our eyes. There’s no “running out the clock” in swimming. There’s no “kneeling” in swimming. Swimming lives, breathes, labors and dies for the kind of experiences that Lezak gave us all on that fateful moment.

Where were you when Lezak won gold?

You can follow Lezak on Twitter here. 

Jason Lezak is represented by Evan Morgenstein, Founder/CEO PMG Sports.

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8 years ago

Awesome guy, awesome swimmer. Will always remember that relay. Proud to be an alum with him. Go Gauchos!

Reply to  Gauchos4Life
8 years ago

“Enormous ups to Gaucho and Irvine resident Jason Lezak for perhaps delivering the signature moment of the entire games in Beijing.

“Sure, Michael Phelps is a beast and is still on track for his 8 gold medals, but he’s not where he is without Lezak’s monster anchor leg in the 4 x 100 relay. Lezak ran down France’s Alain Bernard, who was the world record holder in the 100 free—the same Bernard who foolishly bumped his gums before the race saying the French would smash the Americans. If by smash, you mean get punked by and humiliated internationally by them, then I agree, you smashed the U.S.!

“Who do you think you are, talking that kind of junk… Read more »

8 years ago

Well, starting with Janet Evans the OC Olympians started being born in the county. Before that the Bashashoffs-Shirley, Jack, Bill and Debbie were born in Whitter in La County close. And Brian Goodell in Fresno. The Furness brothers Steve and Bruce were born in the midwest, maybe not all of them. Jason, Amanda Beard and Aarion Perisol born in Orange County.

8 years ago

Jason stayed very long in the sport which is rare to make it to 37 years at the elite level.Many do it in masters. Torres has a spanish surname but is Jewish which might mean someone in the family came from Spain.

8 years ago

Watching that relay was such a rush! It took me from the lowest low to the highest high in a matter of seconds! I remember I had sunk down into the depths my chair cushion, feeling utterly sad (for Phelps and Team USA) and defeated, and then seconds later I had leaped into the air and was screaming and yelling my head off! What a ride! And I’ll never forget it, thanks to the Legendary Lezak! I tip my cap to you, sir!

8 years ago

Lots of Olympians win medals; very few become verbs. Thank you, Jason, for one of the sports’s most thrilling races and for being a steadfast presence on the team for so long. Enjoy the next phase of your life!

8 years ago

People will credit Phelps for his overall 2008 performance, but anyone who watched Lezak going into the water achoring the 4x100free, chasing after the then-current world record holder in the 100 free (that roided-up French guy)….and then loosing ground by the turn, and then somehow willing himself to the wall first, KNOWS that LEZAK gave the single best swimming performance in history – PERIOD! Live long and prosper!!!

8 years ago

That relay was amazing to watch, even though I knew the result (thanks NBC tape delay on the west coast) it was unbelievably thrilling to watch. He is a very humble superstar, and I wish him all the best. I may be most impressed by his training alone for the olympics. It takes a special kind of person to accomplish that, as anyone who has spent hours in the pool can attest. All the best in retirement Jason.

8 years ago

Dear Mr. Lezak,

I think I can speak for all members of USMS that we can’t wait for you to stop by for a race or two. Rowdy’s racing Masters and your hero, Matt Biondi, was even seen at a meet last year. Come on by and join the Masters party. There’s no need to retire — swimming and racing swimming is lifelong (and provides long life).

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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