Jason Lezak

Jason Lezak on life in retirement

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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.”

Five takeaways from U.S. Swimming Championships

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross win World Series of Beach Volleyball

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Rio bronze medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross bounced back from an Olympic upset to win the biggest annual tournament in the U.S. on Sunday.

Walsh Jennings and Ross captured the Asics World Series of Beach Volleyball title in Long Beach, Calif., for the second time in three years. They beat Spanish pair Liliana Fernández and Elsa Baquerizo 21-16, 21-16 in the final.

“We love those girls so much, they are dear friends of ours,” Walsh Jennings said. “We wanted to beat them down.”

Absent from Long Beach were Olympic gold medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany and silver medalists Ágatha and Bárbara of Brazil.

Walsh Jennings and Ross, who lost to Ágatha and Bárbara in the Olympic semifinals, dropped a total of two sets in seven undefeated matches this past week.

They earned their fifth international title of the year after winning none in 2015, last season shortened by Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.

In the men’s final, Brazil’s No. 2 pair, Pedro and Evandro, beat top U.S. pair Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena 19-21, 21-17, 15-9.

Olympic champions Alison and Bruno of Brazil did not compete in Long Beach.

The beach volleyball season continues with the FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto in two weeks.

MORE: Tough for Misty May-Treanor to watch Kerri Walsh Jennings in Rio

Monica Puig’s unlikely Olympic tennis gold reminded her of ‘Miracle’ scene

Monica Puig
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NEW YORK (AP) — Monica Puig gazed out at her fellow Puerto Ricans jamming the parade route, and in their eyes she saw hope.

They hailed her with “a sense of satisfaction,” she recalled Saturday, “and a sense of belief that things are going to get better.”

Throughout her stunning run to the Olympic tennis gold medal, Puig embraced the symbolism of each upset victory. An economic crisis is devastating the island of her birth, and she appreciated that if she could prove the impossible is possible, that message would reverberate far beyond sports.

“If Puerto Rico channels that same energy and belief that things will get better and working for the better of the island, the better of the community, things will improve,” Puig said four days after the U.S. territory honored its Olympic team and, above all, its first gold medalist.

“I really hope I gave them a lot of confidence moving forward,” she added, “that things will actually get better.”

The world’s 34th-ranked women’s tennis player met with a roomful of reporters Saturday, exactly two weeks after she beat Australian Open champ Angelique Kerber in three sets in the final in Rio de Janeiro. Poised and philosophical in ways that bely her age, the 22-year-old realizes some people deem her gold medal “a fluke.”

After all, Puig has never made it past the round of 16 at a major. And at the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, she’s never advanced beyond the second round. Puig is already bracing herself for the reality that her run at Flushing Meadows could fall well short of what took place in Rio.

“I’m 22 years old. There’s still a long way for me to go, a long stretch of career,” she said. “If anything happens, any kind of slip-up, it’s not really going to be a big deal, because I have a process and I have a long-term view of where I want to go.”

Which isn’t to say she expects a slip-up.

“I know that the Olympics wasn’t a fluke for me, because I have worked very hard to get to where I am,” Puig said. “I know the hours and the tears and the sweat and everything that’s been put into my practices. It’s been very difficult for me.

“But that moment, nobody will be able to take away.”

Even she considers that Olympic moment to be like something out of a movie script. When spectators chanted “Si se puede!” (“Yes you can!” in Spanish) during the final against the second-ranked Kerber, Puig flashed back to a scene from the film “Miracle” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

With fans roaring “U-S-A!” coach Herb Brooks tells his players: “Listen to them. That’s what you’ve done.” As Puig said Saturday, “I needed to listen to the crowd.”

Her gold might not have been quite as unlikely as the Miracle on Ice, but it wasn’t too far off. The night after her victory, Puig slept with the medal on her nightstand, waking up every few hours to make sure it was real. She still feels the need to check up on it during the day.

“I see the videos and I’m like, ‘Did this really just happen?'” Puig said.

When they showed the clip of her medal ceremony when she was honored in Puerto Rico, she started crying again. Through it all, she insisted Saturday, she felt she kept her focus, knowing the U.S. Open was looming.

After Rio, Puig spent some time with her family in Miami, where she lives. Then it was on to the island “where the big party was waiting.” It’s been hard to squeeze in sleep and alone time and practice — all the things she needs to recover from one big event and prepare for another.

Puig faces 60th-ranked Zheng Saisai, who upset Agnieszka Radwanska at the Olympics, in the first round Monday. She originally wasn’t seeded at Flushing Meadows, which meant she could have faced a top player in her opening match, but she moved up to the final seed when Sloane Stephens withdrew because of an injury Friday.

It’s the first time Puig has been seeded at a major, and in what was a breakthrough season even before her golden moment, she’s starting to grow comfortable with those sorts of roles.

“I feel like I finally understand what I’m doing when it comes to tennis,” she said.

MORE: U.S. goes one-two in Olympic mixed doubles