Jason Lezak 88 248.
(photo credit: Matreetta TALSI)
Five-time Olympic medalist Jason Lezak spoke of his respect for Israeli swimmers on Monday, as he was presented to the media ahead of his participation in next week's Maccabiah Games.
"When I was younger, I would see maybe one or two fast Israeli swimmers at competitions, and now we're seeing more of them," the American said.
"Some of them actually come to the United States to train. They definitely are improving and they definitely can get faster. How long it takes for them to get into the finals I don't know, but it will happen, I'm pretty confident in that."
Israelis made an impressive showing at last summer's Olympic Games, with Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or reaching the semifinals in the 200m free and Guy Barnea qualifying for the semi of the 100m backstroke.
In March Gal Nevo became the first Israeli in 20 years to win a medal at the NCAA swimming championships when he came second in the 440m individual medley while swimming for Georgia Tech, six months after reaching the semifinals of the 200-IM in Beijing.
And on Sunday Alon Mandel broke the Israeli record for the 50m butterfly, swimming in a time of 24.27 seconds to qualify for the semifinals at the Universidade in Belgrade.
Lezak, who is on his first visit to Israel, explained why he forfeited his spot on the United States' World Championships team to participate in the Maccabiah games, which begin on Sunday. The swimming competitions will be held at the Wingate Institute from July 19-22.
"I've gotten to the point in my career where I thought this was the right opportunity at the right time," Lezak told journalists at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan.
"I've been to the World Championships numerous amounts of times, and I thought this was a good opportunity to not only be in a competitive swimming event, but to have the whole experience."
Lezak cemented his place in history at the Beijing Olympics when he came from a full body length behind French swimmer Alain Bernard in the anchor leg of the 400 meter freestyle relay to win gold for the US and ensure Michael Phelps was on course for a record eight golds.
When asked about his amazing comeback in Beijing, Lezak began recalling the details of the incredible feat.
"When I was getting on the block and saw how much of a lead the French team had, the only thing on my mind was that I had to jump into the water as fast as I can, if I can have any chance," he said
"When I actually dove in the water, I thought that I had left before the guy had touched the wall, I thought that I had disqualified our relay and blew the chance for even getting a silver medal.
"When I got to the turn, I pushed off, and I saw that [Alain] Bernard had increased his lead on me, my initial thought was that there was no possible way I can catch this guy, and I had to block out those negative thoughts and I just kept on racing.
"Slowly, I was getting closer and getting closer. With about 15 meters left in the race, I felt an extra burst of adrenaline, something I usually feel at the beginning of the race. Somehow, it kicked in and gave me the extra energy and I was able to continue at the same pace, and we won."
As for the Maccabiah games, Lezak said he will be making every effort to win golds.
"I look forward to swimming fast. Obviously I would like to swim my best times. Already I'm only three tenths of a second off from my best time [47.5 seconds]. Every time I get in the pool, I train to swim my best," he said.
Lezak arrived in Israel on Friday and has already managed to get some touring under his belt.
"It was great," he said of his first trip to Jerusalem on Sunday. "I got a chance to meet the mayor, which was a great experience for me, and not something the average person gets to do. I also went to Yad Vashem. It was a great learning experience, but pretty sad as well. That was a touching experience. Today I get a chance to go into Jerusalem again, to the Old Jerusalem, which I hear is fabulous.
"This whole experience is obviously why I came too, it's not all about the swimming. It's a chance to see all these different things that I heard about and studied about when I was a kid, and maybe forgot a little about. I have a chance to refresh my memory and actually see things in person."
As for the 2012 Olympics in London, Lezak said he hopes he will be able to compete.
"I'm still training and I feel good right now, but it all depends on whether or not my body can hold up and I can stay injury-free. That's the most important part right now," he said.
As one of the most prominent Jewish athletes in the world Lezak said he realizes the responsibility he has.
"Well it's great, because there are obviously not a lot of Jewish people in the world. I never really had a role model that was Jewish to look up to, and that's what I hope to do.
"I hope to be a role model to a lot of the Jewish athletes growing up, and hopefully I can make a difference," he concluded.