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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Loena Hendrickx on the rise, making Grand Prix debut at Skate America

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Belgian teenager Loena Hendrickx made her Winter Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and began her short program with the aim of becoming the first from her country to qualify for a ladies’ singles free skate since Katrien Pauwels in 1988.

Fresh off a 14th place finish in the men’s event, brother Jorik sat in the stands. He looked away as the music – a cool arrangement of Madonna’s “Frozen” – began, and covered his eyes as the 18-year-old set up for a planned triple lutz, triple toe combination.

Eight years younger than her two-time Olympian elder brother, Hendrickx knew the feeling.

“I get nervous when he competes, too,” she explained after winning a bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. “I might be even more nervous watching him than when I have to skate myself, because I don’t know how he’s feeling on the ice, and I can’t control his skate.”

She ultimately landed the combination – albeit under-rotated – and bested Pauwels’ result from Calgary by one place, finishing 16th overall. Even stronger skates were to come at the world championships in Milan, where she beat reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the free skate to earn a Top 10 total score and qualify for her first-ever Grand Prix events in the upcoming season.

“I’m very excited because that’s something you wish for. The first one is immediately in Skate America, so it’s very exciting. I’ve never been to the States before!”

Jorik was initially scheduled to skate alongside his sister at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., but opted to withdraw and spend the start of the season working with other athletes, including Loena.

“He is working with me sometimes. I really can learn a lot from him because he has the knowledge and experience. I think he can teach me a lot.”

While the siblings work primarily with coach Carine Herrygers, Jorik assisted Loena in selecting her “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” short program music, another ’90s hit by Céline Dion.

“I really liked my program [“The Prayer” by Dion and Josh Groban] from two years ago, and so I think I chose the same style. I researched more of her music, and it was my brother who found this song. I didn’t like it at the beginning because I had another song I liked more.

“In the end, Jorik convinced me to take this one because it’s more powerful and I can skate better to powerful music.”

Hendrickx debuted the program in Oberstdorf, earning personal best scores to make the podium alongside Zagitova and Mai Mihara. More importantly, she achieved her pre-season goal of landing the lutz-toe combination – with positive Grades of Execution – in both phases of the competition.

While most of her competitors made waves as juniors, the Belgian struggled with multiple injuries – a 2016 stress fracture in her back, later a bone bruise on her landing knee – that kept her from eliciting the buzz many top skaters get on the Junior Grand Prix.

“After I healed, I was very happy to begin building back up again. For a long time, I worked on my fitness to make my back and body stronger. That made my jumps stronger and helped me perform better, more consistently.”

In a field that includes two-time world medalist Satoko Miyahara and U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, Hendrickx heads to Skate America armed with a competitive technical arsenal, and a dose of inspiration imparted by her brother on the ice.

“In Belgium, there are fewer opportunities to be successful when you’re younger because it’s very difficult to combine skating with school. Jorik taught me that you never have to give up on your dreams. If you work hard, you’ll see where you can go.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chris Mazdzer adds doubles luge after Olympic medal

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Olympic luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer is doubling up this winter.

Mazdzer has decided to compete in both singles and doubles in World Cup events, in large part because USA Luge didn’t have another option to partner with Olympic doubles veteran Jayson Terdiman.

If the Americans didn’t have a senior doubles team ready for the World Cup, they wouldn’t have been able to compete in team relays this winter — and Terdiman effectively would have been forced into retirement.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” Mazdzer said Monday from Lake Placid, New York, where he and Terdiman took five training runs together at Mount Van Hoevenberg on the season’s opening day for sliding at USA Luge’s home track. “I like when people are like, ‘Chris, you won’t be able to do that.’ This hasn’t been done successfully in two-plus decades. But why not now?”

The move also brings Mazdzer back to his roots. He and Terdiman were successful as a junior team, medaling twice at world championships and winning USA Luge’s team-of-the-year honors for the 2007-08 season.

“It could be something,” Terdiman said. “We’re hoping we’re able to find that magic. It’s asking a lot, but we have a lot of confidence in our own abilities.”

Mazdzer became the first American men’s singles luge athlete to win an Olympic medal, grabbing the silver at the PyeongChang Games earlier this year. Terdiman is a two-time Olympian in doubles, going in 2014 with Christian Niccum and this year with Matt Mortensen. Niccum retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Mortensen retired after PyeongChang.

So Terdiman spent the summer without a partner, and a couple of hours before former USA Luge teammate Megan Sweeney’s wedding, he and Mazdzer got together for coffee.

“I thought about retirement a lot this summer,” Terdiman said. “It was going to be forced if I didn’t have anybody to slide with, and that was a very real thing until Chris and I sat down a couple hours before Megan’s wedding. We talked about him doing both. The confidence he has in himself is very large. He’s going to give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.”

Mazdzer understands that this means he will have a most unusual winter.

There are nine World Cup races this season, and six of those call for the men’s race and the doubles race to be contested on the same day — so Mazdzer will be logging very long hours at the track. There also were International Luge Federation rules to consider about training runs; sliders typically get five or six runs at a track before a World Cup, and Mazdzer will be permitted to get the full allotment of training in both disciplines.

“I’m really pumped about this,” Mazdzer said. “Having the team relay is a huge part of being on the U.S. team. I want to see the U.S. win team relays. I think we’re capable. We have a fantastic team and if doubles works out, we’ve got a shot.”

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