A team player who rises to the challenge

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- That the best relay swimmer of a generation should go it mostly alone on a daily basis has almost an old-school feel.

No uber-controlling coach on the deck barking out orders, and certainly no one telling him what he can and can’t do out of the pool. If Jason Lezak needed someone to time his practices at home in Irvine, he would have his wife do it, at least before she recently started her job as an emergency room nurse in Anaheim.

“Jason Lezak” and “high maintenance” won’t ever be found in the same sentence.

Which is why Lezak, at 32 the oldest man on the U.S. swim team and tri-captain, may have been the perfect swimmer to save the morning, more precisely, the United States’ foundering 400-meter freestyle relay, and, in effect, Michael Phelps’ chances at eight gold medals.


He may train alone, but he is a team guy through and through, a deep lover of team sports, especially the Lakers.

“I’m part of a team, and today was no different,” Lezak told The Times in a telephone interview Monday night, hours after the race. “I got with the guys and said, ‘We’re not a 4-by-100 team. We’re all one.’ ”

Lezak had the final word, though, hunting down then-world-record holder Alain Bernard of France in the anchor leg, slashing through the water and chipping away at Bernard’s sizable lead in the final 50 before finally winning with the touch at the wall.

Expect to see his leg, the fastest 100 relay split (46.06), for decades to come in sports highlight films. The U.S. broke the world record by a big margin, going 3 minutes 8.24 seconds. The old one -- of 3:12.23 -- didn’t even last a day, having been set by the Americans in the prelims Sunday night.

“To top it all off, I was telling my wife, ‘This is the second-best day of my life, next to my wedding,’ ” Lezak said.

He sounded like a giddy kid, having watched the preliminary sessions at night at the Water Cube with U.S. basketball players Jason Kidd and LeBron James. “I talked to Jason Kidd the whole time,” Lezak said. “It was an unreal experience. Kobe’s not here . . . of all people, not here.”


It’s a good guess that Lezak will get to meet Bryant by the end of the Olympics, now that Kidd is on the case.

Dream Team? How about Dream Relay?

“That’s the kind of anchor you dream of,” U.S. men’s swim Coach Eddie Reese said. “It shows what you can do when you don’t think about it, you just go. When you put the world-record holder on the end of a relay and you go in behind him, the chance of you beating him is slim and none.”

Not thinking, not a bad idea. Lezak said some of his best swims have come that way. But Monday was a virtual stream of consciousness.

“I started thinking, ‘This guy is pretty far ahead, almost a body length,’ ” Lezak said. “ ‘I’m not going to give up. This is doable.’ I really never think at all. My best races I’ve never remembered. Today, I was talking and talking to myself.”



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For the record

World records in swimming in Beijing:

*--* Aug. 10 Michael Phelps: 400 IM, 4:03.84. Final. Aug. 10 Stephanie Rice, Australia: 400 IM, 4:29.45. Final. Aug. 10 U.S. men: 400 freestyle relay (Nathan Adrian, Cullen Jones, Ben Wildman-Tobriner, Matt Grevers), 3:12.23. Prelims. Aug. 11 Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe: 100 backstroke, 58.77. Semifinals. Aug. 11 Kosuke Kitajima, Japan: 100 breaststroke, 58.91. Final. Aug. 11 U.S. men: 400 freestyle relay (Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak), 3:08.24. Final. Aug. 11 Eamon Sullivan, Australia. 100 freestyle, opening leg of 400 freestyle relay, 47.24. Final. Aug. 11 Federica Pellegrini, Italy, 200 freestyle, 1:55.45. Prelims. Aug. 12 Michael Phelps, U.S., 200 freestyle, 1:42.96. Final. Aug. 12 Aaron Peirsol, U.S., 100 backstroke, 52.54. Final. *--*