The importance of having fun while training to be an athlete was the take-away point from eight-time Olympic medalist Jason Lezak as he spoke to young Whatcom County swim team members on Saturday, July 18.
“When I just showed up and went through the motions, my body was there but my heart wasn’t, and I couldn’t perform,” Lezak said.
Lezak, known for his come-from-behind 4x100 freestyle relay anchor win during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, shared on Saturday about the ups and downs of his swimming career. After being cut from his college swim team, Lezak came back with a renewed motivation and reminded himself that he loves the sport, which he said was an essential change of heart.
By sharing the story of his swimming career, through the success and hardships, Lezak wants to be able to instill in young swimmers that winning can happen if you have fun, too.
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“It shows kids how to come back after not achieving what they set out for,” he said.
Gold had always been his goal, and Lezak achieved that four times in his four-game Olympic career. He also earned two silver and two bronze medals.
In 2002 he was named the fastest sprinter in the world, and Lezak emphasizes that his career peaked at age 32, after he was already being considered one of the “old guys” in the sport. He waited until he was 37 to retire because he still loved competing.
Having a role model of that caliber come to speak to the next generation of swimmers was something they will never forget, said YMCA swim coach David McMillican.
The drills Lezak used to work on core strength techniques were helpful, and McMillican plans to incorporate them into his coaching. His team, the Dolphins, is made up of children from the Lynden, Bellingham and Sudden Valley YMCAs.
It was amazing to learn from Lezak about his background and how he overcame the struggles he faced to become a world-famous swimmer, McMillican said.
“For the kids to be here today and experience Jason’s coaching is the best thing this team has seen as far as motivation,” he said.
The freestyle drills, breathing exercises, concentration on form and style were followed up with a race between Lezak and two swimmers from the Dolphins. Lezak offered them head starts and after a defeat by Faith Suskan, 11, Lezak turned to David Lange, 15, and said he was not getting off so easy. A second after Lange hit the water, Lezak followed but he was too fast. Moments before Lezak could catch up, Lange touched the wall and won.
Racing against an Olympian was surreal, Lange said. Has has been swimming for 10 years now, since lessons in kindergarten, and has been on a team for over eight years, he said. There were some areas of improvement he saw he could work on after swimming with Lezak and he is grateful.
“It was a big honor to swim against someone so good,” Lange said.
Saskan was excited to have won swimming against Lezak. She has met two other Olympic swimmers before, she said.
“It helps a lot to look forward and get some inspiration,” Saskan said.
Both swimmers shake their heads at the mention of quitting. They want to swim for as long as they can.
“This is an opportunity that they are going to remember for the rest of their lives,” said YMCA aquatic director Tish O’Keefe.
When O’Keefe came to the Bellingham YMCA eight years ago, she recalls there being a single person on the swim team. Now, dozens of team members from across Whatcom County came to learn from Lezak and that is proof of the long process that got them to this point, she said. It is important to her that these opportunities keep expanding.
“Some kids just find their niche in the water that they couldn’t find anywhere else,” she said.
Getting in the water and offering hands-on coaching, Lezak exceeded her expectations, O’Keefe said. To be taught basic swimming techniques is something she believes should be accessible to the whole community.
Lezak and his team stressed the importance of water safety and health, both of which O’Keefe said are motivating changes to make lessons accessible for everyone. The YMCA recently released a Safety Around Water policy that is being incorporated.
The coaching done today was one type of swimming focused on competitive skills, O’Keefe said. On the other hand, a basic knowledge of swimming could be the difference between life and death for someone who falls in.
“We are focused on bringing in programs that impact the community,” O’Keefe said. “To get kids in the water who would otherwise drown if they fell in.”