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

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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