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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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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