July 8, 2009
Olympic Gold Medalist Moves on to Maccabiah
For Jason Lezak, choosing to swim in the Maccabiah Games in Israel over the FINA World Championships in Rome this month came down to more than what happens in the water.
At 33, nearing the end of a career that earned him seven Olympic medals, Lezak figured this might be his last opportunity to make his Maccabiah debut.
Lezak, whose record-setting anchor in the 400-meter freestyle relay propelled the United States to gold in the 2008 Summer Olympics, acknowledged it was a tough decision.
“It came to a point where if I’m going to do it, now is the time,” he said.
As a professional swimmer, Lezak makes his money at events like the 13th FINA World Championships. Plus, it’s where the best in the world meet. The Irvine resident said it was “the overall experience” that swayed him toward the games in Israel July 12-23.
“It was the full schedule, with the sightseeing, the opening ceremony and the competition itself all wrapped into one,” he said.
Not to mention his July 15 induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at the Wingate Institute in Netanya.
Lezak will be among some 8,000 Jewish athletes from more than 60 countries participating in the so-called Jewish Olympics, which are held every four years.
Opening ceremonies will be held July 13 at Ramat Gan Stadium.
Lezak is partnering with Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel on a fundraising initiative in which he will go into the community to encourage young people to live an active lifestyle.
“It’s something for me to get in touch more with Jewish kids and hopefully inspire them,” he said. “I really didn’t have anyone like that growing up.”
Lezak registered one of the most dramatic performances during the Beijing games last August, with his late dash to capture gold for the U.S. in the 400-meter relay. He came from about half a body length behind in the last 20 meters to nip the Frenchman Alain Bernard, a former world-record holder in the 100 freestyle.
The clutch performance not only secured victory for the United States, it also saved relay teammate Michael Phelps’ ultimately successful bid to win a record eight Olympic gold medals, snapping the mark of seven set in a single games by another Jewish swimmer, Mark Spitz. Lezak also would win his first individual Olympic medal — a bronze in the 100 freestyle.
Since China, corporations including Coca-Cola and Roche Labs have called on Lezak to provide motivational speeches to their employees. With his prowess in the relays, he talks about — what else — being a team player.
“I talk about perseverance, how it took a long time to get where I am, how I never gave up,” he said.
Though the total Maccabiah package is what ultimately captured Lezak’s imagination, don’t think the fire doesn’t burn to win in Israel. Certainly he will be favored in his two races, the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle.
“Gold obviously is the goal,” he said. “I’m going to try and win. Winning gold medals in competitions is a wonderful thing.”
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