Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay

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Before the 2008 Olympic men’s 4x100m freestyle relay, the French were talking. Jason Lezak was, too.

Lezak and teammates Michael PhelpsGarrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones gathered outside the ready room minutes before the unforgettable final on the morning of Aug. 11, 2008 (full race video here). The 10th anniversary is Friday night in the U.S./Saturday morning in China.

Lezak, the 32-year-old team captain, had something to say.

“I didn’t want to talk to the team with everybody around us,” Lezak recalled in a 2014 interview. “We walked down the hallway. I wanted to make it short, make it brief. All those guys were aware of the situation. I reminded them we lost this race the last two Olympics. We’re supposed to win this. This is USA’s race. This is a 400, not a 4×100. Do it as a team, together. It wasn’t a lot of words, not yelling or pumping them up or anything, but I saw the response that it got.”

Lezak had been thinking about this race since he made his third Olympic team at trials five weeks earlier. He had been anticipating another chance at gold since 2000, when air-guitar-strumming Australia dethroned the U.S., and 2004, when bicep-flexing South Africa won the relay.

Lezak was part of both of those underwhelming U.S. quartets.

The Americans marched into the Water Cube with that in mind and knowing the words of French world-record holder Alain Bernard days before.

“The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for,” Bernard was quoted saying before the Games.

Lezak had barely heard of the hulking, 6-foot-5 Bernard until less than a year before Beijing. Bernard didn’t make the finals of the 2007 World Championships 100m free, but in March 2008 twice lowered the world record.

As spring turned to summer, Lezak began having visions of the Olympic relay.

“I had the lead jumping in the water and holding [Bernard] off,” Lezak said. “Every once in a while in the vision, the French team had the lead. Instead of me finishing, I would stop thinking about it.”

Phelps led off the relay after swimming the 200m free semifinals earlier that session. The 4x100m free was his second of eight finals as the Baltimore Bullet attempted to break Mark Spitz‘s record seven gold medals at a single Olympics.

Phelps was strongly favored in five or six of his races, but this was one of his two major tests (along with the 100m butterfly later in the Games).

Phelps did his job, breaking the American record in the 100m free on leadoff and touching four tenths ahead of Frenchman Amaury Leveaux. Olympic rookies Weber-Gale and Jones followed. France took the lead on the third leg, as expected, with Frederick Bousquet posting the fastest split of the field to that point by nearly a half-second.

Lezak has retold stories from what happened in the next minute hundreds of times in the last decade, many instances at swim clinics in front of kids too young to recall watching it.

Lezak remembered the relay’s first three legs unfold, standing behind the starting block with Bernard one lane over, anchoring for the French.

“Emotions going all over the place,” Lezak said. “I was so anxious to try to catch [Bernard] I actually thought in my head that I left [the starting block] early and I would get DQed. I believe my reaction time was .03, which was really close. I’m sure all the coaches were freaking out.”

It was actually .04, second-best reaction of the 24 relay exchanges among the eight nations. Lezak avoided disqualification by eight hundredths of a second.

“Swimming down the first length [of the pool], trying to get all my thoughts out of my head,” Lezak continued. “As I did that, Bernard was on my left, and I breathed to my right. Never once did I look over to see where he was. I got to the 50, flipped and pushed off, and had another thought. Oh no, this guy increased his lead on me.”

The French lead was .82. Bernard, the world-record holder going into the race, had nearly a body-length advantage on Lezak with 50 meters left.

“Starting the second 50, looking at him every single stroke I took, I see myself getting a little closer, little by little, then to his hip,” Lezak said. “I felt like I was there for a pretty long time. With 15 meters left, I felt an extra surge of adrenalin, being able to maintain my speed all the way into the wall. His stroke deteriorated, fell apart.” 

Bernard swam well. His 46.73 split was third-fastest of the field, but he helped allow Lezak to swim into history.

The American clocked 46.06, the fastest split of all time by a whopping .57 of a second. He was boosted by drafting off Bernard, who inexplicably swam in the far left of his lane, right next to Lezak.

Lezak wasn’t sure he had beaten Bernard to the wall. He had two options to find out. Turn around to see the scoreboard, or look up at Phelps and Weber-Gale, who were screaming next to the starting block.

He chose the former.

“I saw it pretty quickly,” said Lezak, who leaped up and threw his right arm into the air. “All you look for is the place next to the team, not the time.”

The U.S. won by .08. Six nations went under the pre-Olympic world record. Phelps and Weber-Gale boisterously celebrated. Jones rushed to join them from the side of the pool after swimming the third leg. Lezak could barely stand.

“The only thing I did was grab onto those guys,” Lezak said. “I said, I need you guys so that I don’t fall over.”

Lezak politely shook the French’s hands. Eventually, when he took his full body swimsuit off before the medal ceremony, he found that his leg had bled from banging his shin on a ledge climbing out of the pool. The suit, stained by blood, was later sent to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

As he walked toward the podium, Lezak spotted his wife, mother and two sisters in the crowd.

“I started to tear up a little it,” he said, “because I could see them crying, too.”

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Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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