The pressure to perform for crowds didn’t go away after Jason Lezak stepped out of the pool.
He has turned to public speaking in retirement. The first time he stared out at a sea of eyes, the swimmer felt an immediate knot in the pit of his stomach.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe there’s so many people here,” Lezak remembered. “When I was little, I had a hard time stepping in front of a classroom, let alone in front of a large group,”
Lezak, a four-time Olympian and the anchor-leg star of the 2008 Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay, equated his maturation in motivational speeches, corporate conventions and children’s clinics to his own swimming.
“It’s like starting your first meet,” he said at the U.S. Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., last week, adjacent to a high school gym where a banner hangs with his name, among others, and five Olympic rings. “You’re not going to be very successful at first. You’re going to have failures and setbacks.”
Lezak embraced the challenge so much that he’s now traveling abroad for engagements, such as Sweden later this month. He feels comfortable in front of 100 or more than 1,000 onlookers, at shallow pools or inside arenas.
“In the corporate world, I’m talking a lot about team and not giving up and longevity and perseverance,” said Lezak, who didn’t win his first individual medal until his third Olympics. “Each company wants a little something different, overcoming obstacles, whatever that may be, something that can relate to the corporate world. For the kids, I’m giving them that kind of message in a smaller version, not going into as much depth.”
He still swims sometimes, just to stay in shape at 38 years old with two young boys to chase around. He said the best questions he’s faced in public came not from the suits, but from the kids.
“I get asked about Michael [Phelps] and Ryan [Lochte] all the time,” said Lezak, a teammate of Phelps and Lochte at three Olympics.
But not the Beijing relay?
“[Phelps and Lochte] are in the spotlight,” Lezak said. “They heard my story. They heard about the relay. Now they want to know, what are those guys like? How often do you see them? Where do you guys hang out? What do they do?”
Lezak’s presence at Nationals drew applause from spectators — not quite as loud as for Phelps and Lochte, but still appreciative — pats on the back on the pool deck and reflections.
“I miss the competitiveness; I miss the challenge,” Lezak said. “But when it comes down to it, I don’t miss how my body felt trying to train at the end of my career. It got real difficult as I got older. I wish I could do it, but I’m glad I’m not doing it.
“I do my fast swimming when I go to my clinics, and I race the kids.”