Olympic champ on value of competing in many sports while growing up
By Greg Bach
Growing up in Irvine, Calif., Jason Lezak was one of the country’s most dominant junior swimmers.
But it was the time he spent out of the water – participating in other sports – that kept him fresh, energized and on course to enjoy a golden Olympic career.
“Staying well-rounded was really important for me,” Lezak says. “Kids don’t do that as much anymore with specializing earlier on in a sport.”
Lezak played basketball, baseball, soccer and water polo, several of them into his high school years.
“I loved all the different sports,” he says. “I just think when I went through some hard times in swimming not having to focus on it constantly and being able to take a break and do other sports kept me in the sport.”
And what a career he had in it, too.
He swam in four Olympic Games and won medals in all of them: Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. He earned his first Olympic gold anchoring the 4 x 100 medley relay in Sydney.
THE POWER OF PARTICIPATING
Very few individuals will ever experience participating in the Olympics, but all children can reap so many incredible benefits from participating in any sport that interests them.
“I think sports are so important,” Lezak says. “I still have best friends from high school that I swam with that never went past high school swimming, and I still have best friends from college that swam in college that didn’t go past college swimming. It’s lifetime memories and creating friends, but it’s also learning all the other things that are so important in life as far as working hard and discipline and making sacrifices. All those things are great and they also bode well for later on when people are looking to hire people for jobs. Employers love athletes because they know they had to go through so much and those are the type of people that they want to hire.”
KID FRIENDLY ADVICE ON HANDLING PRESSURE
Pressure comes in many forms, and all young athletes react to it – and handle it – differently.
Lezak encourages children to be themselves throughout the process.
“What I tell kids is find who you are and be yourself,” he says.
There’s arguably no greater pressure in sports than the Olympics, where years of training and sacrifice often come down to one performance decided by hundredths of a second in many cases.
“I definitely had times where that pressure got to me and I didn’t perform as well as I had wanted to but you learn from that,” Lezak says. “For me, what I learned is just to be myself and being myself meant that as I’m preparing for a race taking my mind off of things and just kind of scoping out the scene. I got a kick out of what other people were doing to prepare. So I just kind of looked around at my competition and I’d see so many people doing different things and that just kept my mind off the pressures of the race and that helped me focus. For other people it’s listening to music or jumping up and down.”
MAKE A SPLASH INITIATIVE
Child drownings are the second leading cause of unintentional death for children under 14, and the leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 4.
And these numbers put into perspective just how serious the problem is today: 70 percent of African-American children, 60 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children don’t know how to swim.
“I grew up in Southern California and I just thought everyone here knew how to swim and I learned through the years just how big of a problem it is,” Lezak says. “And once I started having kids I realized I have to get my kids in swim lessons immediately.”
Lezak is actively involved in the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” initiative, which has given more than 4 million children the lifesaving gift of free or low-cost swim lessons.
“Hearing all the statistics I just felt if there is something I can do to help I’m definitely willing to,” Lezak says. “Obviously not everyone is going to take it to the Olympic level or even have that kind of dream – but the importance of being safer in the water is huge and now having kids I’m one of those parents that gets worried.”
If your child cannot swim or you would like to help others learn this critical life-saving skill, visit www.USASwimmingFoundation.org to find a local partner offering affordable swim lessons.
Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion Briana Scurry, author of MY GREATEST SAVE, on managing challenging moments and what young athletes in all sports can do to navigate them and stay focused on the present
Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance