For swimmer Jason Lezak, choosing the Maccabiah Games over the World Championships came down to more than what happens in the water.
At 33, nearing the end of a career that includes 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, Lezak makes his money at events like the Worlds, which this year are being contested July 17 to August 2 in Rome. Plus it’s where the best in the world meet. The Californian 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.
His decision made, Lezak is partnering with Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel on a fund-raising 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 says. “I’m going to try and win. Winning gold medals in competitions is a wonderful thing.”