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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Mo Farah focused on Chicago Marathon defense, not ruling out 10,000m double

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Mo Farah said all of his training focus is on defending his Chicago Marathon title on Oct. 13, but the British star also said Tuesday that he can wait until “the last minute” to change his mind and also enter the world championships 10,000m on Oct. 6.

“I am a reigning world champion, so I do get an automatic spot anyway,” Farah said of the 10,000m, where he is a three-time reigning world champion.

Farah transitioned to road racing after the 2017 season and was thought to be done with major track championships. Farah was the distance king for more than a half-decade, sweeping the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Farah said Tuesday that he didn’t know what the deadline would be to enter the world championships 10,000m.

“I really don’t know. I think the last minute,” he said. “As I said, I get an automatic spot anyway. I don’t know. My main target is to defend my [marathon] title, come out to Chicago. All the training is geared toward the marathon.”

An IAAF spokesperson said Farah must be entered as part of the British team by Sept. 16 to be eligible for worlds.

British Athletics said Wednesday that its team will be selected Sept. 2.

“Should Mo wish to race the 10,000m in Doha, he would need to advise the selection panel prior to this date,” a spokesperson said.

Farah enticed his followers about the 10,000m in a July 27 Instagram with the hashtag #doha10k, referencing the site of world championships in Qatar. Farah was asked Tuesday why he included the hashtag.

“Anything is possible,” he said. “I’m a reigning champion. I get an automatic spot. There’s nothing I have to do. I just thought why not?”

It’s not an unprecedented type of move to race a 10,000m one week before a marathon. Former training partner Galen Rupp placed fifth in the 2016 Olympic 10,000m on Aug. 13, then took bronze in the marathon on Aug. 21.

Farah said he hasn’t set any major racing plans beyond Chicago. He finished what he called a disappointing fifth in the London Marathon in 2:05.39 on April 28, three minutes behind winner Eliud Kipchoge. Farah said a satisfying result in Chicago would be a win above worrying about a specific time. The last man to repeat as Chicago champ was Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru in 2010.

The 2020 London Marathon is three and a half months before the Tokyo Olympic marathon, a tight turnaround.

“I think I can get back in form for the London Marathon before the Olympics, and then the Olympics, I guess, but I haven’t decided,” Farah said. “My main target now is just Chicago, then work from there.”

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Race Imboden, Gwen Berry get probation for Pan Am Games podium protests

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DENVER (AP) — The letter went to the two protesters. The message was meant for a much wider audience.

The CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sent letters of reprimand to hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for protesting on the medals stand last week at the Pan American Games, but the 12-month probations that came with the letters also included a none-too-subtle signal for anyone vying for next year’s Olympics.

“It is also important for me to point out that, going forward, issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance is insufficient,” Sarah Hirshland wrote in the letters sent Tuesday. The Associated Press obtained copies of the documents.

Neither Berry’s raised fist nor Imboden’s kneel-down on the Pan Am medals stand were met with immediate consequences, in part because they happened at the tail end of the Games that were wrapping up in Lima, Peru.

Hirshland’s letter was as clear a sign as possible that athletes who try the same next year in Tokyo could face a different reaction.

It’s the IOC’s role to discipline athletes who break rules that forbid political protest at the Olympics — much the way the IOC triggered the ouster of John Carlos and Tommie Smith after their iconic protest in 1968 — though national federations can get into the mix, too. Before going to the Olympics, athletes sign forms stating they’re aware of the rules and won’t break them.

“We recognize that we must more clearly define for Team USA athletes what a breach of these rules will mean in the future,” Hirshland wrote. “Working with the (athletes and national governing body councils), we are committed to more explicitly defining what the consequences will be for members of Team USA who protest at future Games.”

Neither athlete immediately returned messages sent to them by AP via their social media accounts and agents.

Both will be eligible for the Olympics next summer, when the United States will be in the heat of a presidential campaign.

In a tweet sent shortly after his team’s medals ceremony at the Pan Am Games, Imboden said: “Racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list” of issues that need to be addressed.

Berry said she was protesting social injustice in America, and that it was “too important to not say something.”

Hirshland said she respected the perspectives of the athletes and would work with the IOC “to engage on a global discussion on these matters.”

“However, we can’t ignore the rules or the reasons they exist,” she wrote.

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