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The Way Heroes Are Made

Everybody dreams of being a hero. Like most guys, when I was growing up I used to dream about delivering the game-winning home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, or completing a hail-Mary pass in the fourth quarter as time expires to win the championship. I never had the opportunity (okay, I never had the talent) to experience such heroism, so I mostly live out my sports fantasies through real athletes, and each time I witness a last-minute hit/shot/pass/run/kick that wins the game or championship or whatever, I get goose bumps, and whoever comes through in the clutch becomes my new hero: Dwight Clark and "The Catch" in the 1982 NFC Championship, Kirk Gibson and his improbable home run in the 1988 World Series, David Tyree and The Miracle Catch in the Super Bowl earlier this year.

I've vacariously lived through a bunch of Great Moments in Sports, but yesterday while watching the Summer Olympic Games, I got a shot of armchair adrenaline that may just be the most dramatic sports moment I've ever witnessed. Maybe you saw it live like I did and said something like Vin Scully famously uttered after Kirk Gibson's inconceivable home run: "I don't believe what I just saw." Or perhaps you saw the morning-after replay on just about every early morning news program and wished you'd seen it live. However you saw The Swim, it was something to see.

Of course, the heroic moment I'm takling about is the photo-finish of the men's 400-meter freestyle relay at The Cube aquatics center in Beijing, and the unlikely hero was Jason Lezak. Now, I'm going to go on record and predict that in a few years--maybe sooner--the world won't remember the name Jason Lezak like it does Dwight Clark, Kirk Gibson, or even David Tyree.

You see, Jason Lezak isn't a larger-than-life hero like so many who have come before him. He's an ordinary, working-class hero, like the guy who saves a kid from drowning and then shuns the limelight. He's a role player who responds to accolades by simply saying, "I was just doing my job."

Indeed, the 32-year-old Lezak, a three-time Olympian who has been overshadowed over the years by more popular swimmers like Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps, isn't generally recognized as the elite swimmer he is. But he never complains, content to just do his job in support of the team. Well, with last night's race, he did much more than support the team. With the gold medal on the line, with Michael Phelps drive for eight gold medals on the line, with his team's reputation on the line, Jason Lezak came through in heroic style.

When Lezak dived into the pool as the anchor of the four-man relay race, he was a full body length behind Frenchman Alain Bernard, the world-record holder in the 100 freestyle, who had guaranteed last week that he and his French teammates would "smash" the Americans in this event. As Bernard and Lezak, swimming side-by-side, made the turn for the final 50 meters, the situation looked hopeless. Even Lezak, by his own admission, wondered if he could overtake the French swimmer.

That's when Lezak's true heroic heart took over. "I changed," he said. "I thought, 'That's ridiculous. I'm at the Olympic Games, I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts, I'm going after it..'"

What happened next was, in the words of writer Pat Forde, "the stuff of Disney movies." Lezak swam down Bernard and edged him by a fingertip, setting a new world record in the event, capturing the gold medal for his team, and preserving Phelps' super-human quest for sports immortality.

If Phelps is able to pull off his incredible goal--and I'm rooting just like everyone else for him to do just that--he will owe a debt of gratitude to my new hero, Jason Lezak, who showed the way heroes are made, not through glitz and glamour, but through perseverance and pressure and an attitude that says, "I don't care how bad it hurts, I'm going after it."


it was aaaaaawwwwesome.
Truly memorable.
Truly worth shouting about.
The Olympic spirit at its very best.

Truly inspirational. Thanks.

Hi Stan! How are you doing?

Thanks for sharing this inspirational story. I love the unsung, everyday, ordinary heros of life. Well told and many kudos to Jason! I missed this race. But I heard about it.

We are in love with the girls volleyball! Makes me wish I was back at the beach :-)

God bless you and your family! Teresa

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.