Can't Miss Race of the Arena Grand Prix at Austin
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
I miss the days when we watched real American idols, otherwise known as “Olympians.” Remember them? Remember those magical moments when a lifetime of brutal training came down to the last five meters, the last, epic stretches of fingertips, arms, and torso? Scratching for the wall, churning, gasping, while the entire world roars?
Jason Lezak was a true American idol. I say this not because I necessarily know the inner-workings of his personality, or what he’s like with his family, or what type of a man he is away from the pool. I say this because he provided one of the greatest (and most thrilling) moments in U.S. Olympics history. This past week, Lezak – the man, the myth, the legend – has hung up his suit, his cap, and his goggles, and called it a career.
And what a career it was.
His 2008 anchor relay, otherwise known simply as “The Anchor,” is already something of mythical folklore. Half a body-length down on one of the fastest swimmers in the world against a team heavily favored. Phelps’ pursuit of eight golds hanging by a thin thread. Rowdy Gaines on the TV, his excited voice building. The eruption of muscles, guttural screams, and primal fist-pumping celebrations that ensued when Lezak hit the wall. It was one of those moments swim fans remember for a lifetime and one of those moments by which a career is defined, like David Tyree’s miraculous, acrobatic Super Bowl grab, or Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass. “The Anchor” will become synonymous with “Lezak.”
Lezak was one of those great surprises on the swimming circuit, a relatively “later bloomer” who made his biggest impacts in his thirties. His legacy, besides The Anchor, will be proving to younger swimmers that sprinters can age like wine: they can become better with age.
This weekend in Austin at the first stop of the 2013 Arena Grand Prix Series, the Can’t Miss Race of the weekend will be the men’s 100m freestyle. Not because it’ll be an homage to the retirement of Lezak. Not because it’ll determine Olympic gold. But this weekend’s men’s 100m freestyle features the best of the best, a field that features swimmers who many predict will be our 400 freestyle relay in 2016. Adrian. Feigen. Berens. Grevers. Lochte. Weber-Gale. Ervin. And others.
Without a doubt, Nathan Adrian’s gold medal 100m victory this summer was epic. He’s now the man. He’s the face of USA men’s sprinting. Until 2016, he’s the favorite in every race, every meet, every championship final. And when the time comes for Adrian to answer the anchor call, you know he’ll answer. He’ll certainly be the favorite this weekend. But this is also a deep, veteran field. They are Olympians, gold medalists, world-record holders, and legends in their own right.
The question, as we begin this new Olympiad, is: Can any of these veterans have a similar, legendary ascension like Lezak did? Can any of these swimmers continue their already remarkable careers and drop the fastest relay split in history in the later stage of their career, in their thirties?
We’re going to see, starting this weekend.
As we reflect on the remarkable career of Jason Lezak, we look around the room and say, “Alright, who’s next?” Who will carry the flag? Who will provide that mythical, legendary, unforgettable Doug Flutie or David Tyree moment in 2016? 2020? 2024?
Nathan Adrian already did that this past summer. Perhaps it’s unfair to ask him, and his fellow championship finalists swimming beside him this weekend, to answer the call again and again. But that’s swimming. That’s sports. And that is, ultimately, what Jason Lezak proved. Whenever there was a chance, whenever there was an opportunity -- whether it be a seemingly impossible distance-behind going into the last 25m of a 400 freestyle relay, or a last chance 100m finals Olympic Trials swim at the age of thirty-six – Lezak was there, charging home.
Ultimately, that persistent ascension will be Lezak’s legacy, a legendary career that continued onwards into his thirties. This weekend in Austin, swim fans will hope to see which American idol will keep that flame going -- this year, next year, and for many years to come.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.