Less than six months after swimming one of the most electrifying laps in the history of his sport—the greatest 46 seconds of his life, witnessed by billions of people—Jason Lezak is sitting in an anonymous hotel conference room in Phoenix trying to save his career. The four-time Olympic gold medalist is wearing a button-down shirt and black slacks. Across a small table is a smiling, silver-haired gentleman whom Lezak, 32, has just met. The two strangers are being set up. This is a speed date, so to speak. If a connection is made, the older man, a brand-management executive for Mutual of Omaha named John Hildenbiddle, will have a new corporate spokesman. And if the deal is big enough, Lezak, one of many Beijing Olympians who are now effectively unemployed, will be able to get back in the pool. The men shake hands. "I've been looking forward to this," Hildenbiddle tells him. "Me too," says Lezak. He's nervous. He feels awkward, selling himself like this. But he's out of options. Over the din, Hildenbiddle asks Lezak about "that race," which he says he's watched "50 times" and still gives him chills. Lezak has recounted the story more than 50 times, but he's glad to do it again.
It was late morning in Beijing on Aug. 11. In the waiting area before the start of the 4-by-100 freestyle relay, Lezak called a huddle with his young teammates, Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale and Michael Phelps. Lezak told them he had been a part of this relay in 2000 and had come in second. He was a part of this relay in 2004 and got bronze. The message: enough. They nodded and walked out to the pool. Lezak, the veteran, would swim last. For Team USA to win, he figured he'd have to hit the water ahead of France's Alain Bernard, the world record-holder in the 100-meter freestyle. But when Lezak dove in, he was already behind. Way behind. At the 50-meter turn, he glanced right and saw Bernard a full body-length ahead. "I thought," Lezak tells Hildenbiddle, "this is impossible." Team USA was going to lose yet again, and Michael Phelps's dream of winning eight golds was about to end while he stood helplessly on the pool deck—unless Lezak swam the last 50 meters faster than anyone ever had. Gradually, he began inching up on Bernard, who seemed to be tiring. Hildenbiddle leans in as Lezak speaks more softly, trying not to sound boastful. As the wall drew closer, Lezak tells his audience of one, he kept thinking the same thought: "I have to do it."
The face we all remember—after Lezak caught the Frenchman from behind, clinched the gold and turned himself into America's second-favorite swimmer—belonged to Phelps, who let out a primal roar, his features locked in shock and exhilaration. But Lezak got his moments in the spotlight, too, including a visit with Oprah. He tells Hildenbiddle about all the people who have cheered him in airports all over the country, but he leaves out the other comment he hears all the time: "You must have 10 sponsors by now!"
Lezak does not have a single sponsorship. Not one. His only corporate backer, Nike, got out of the swimming business before the Beijing Games, no longer willing to compete with Speedo. There went a six-figure annual paycheck that funded most of Lezak's career and his $1,000-a-month condo mortgage. He figured another company would swoop in, but he's still waiting. "It stresses me out," he says. "But I have to keep my hopes up." Backstroker Aaron Peirsol, another Nike swimmer, is also trying to race without a sponsor. Breast-stroker Brendan Hansen is taking a year off. "The worst-case scenario is here," says Evan Morgenstein, Lezak's agent. "Athletes are starting to say they can't do it." Even in boom times, most athletes struggle between Olympic games; post-Beijing, sponsorships have evaporated along with everything else in the economy. "If you want to trim," says Myrtha Pools CEO Kevin McGrath, who would've sponsored at least one Olympian but for the recession, "this is at the top of the list."
Lezak had hoped his golden sprint would make him immune to cutbacks. He earns $10,000 to $20,000 for motivational speeches, but after four bookings in January, he had only one in February. "They're cutting those appearances left and right," says Olympic swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno, who just retired. Lezak's monthly stipend from Team USA, his only regular income right now, is just $1,750. His wife, Danielle, an ER nurse, wants to look for houses but money is too tight. Morgenstein is putting Lezak up for infomercials, hair-restoration ads, anything he can, but he always gets the same answer: "We love Jason, but … " "If I can't get him $200,000" per year, Morgenstein says, "it's time to move on."
If that figure sounds high, consider that Lezak—like most pro athletes—needs the money he makes now to carry him for a while. He can't enter the work force in his mid-30s with nothing in savings. About half his annual haul gets plowed into expenses: taxes, equipment, travel. Without a sponsorship, Lezak has to pay for his own swimsuits, which cost $550 for a top model; he could use an old one, but that's like bringing a wooden racket to Wimbledon. And anyway, which old suit? He doesn't feel comfortable wearing his Team USA suit to a local meet, where he's swimming for himself. If he doesn't have a sponsor in time for the world-championship trials this summer, he might have to swallow his pride and call a friend with a Speedo deal to ask if he can borrow one.
Avoiding such an indignity is part of why he's here in Phoenix subjecting himself to another one. USA Swimming created the "speed-dating" event this year to help its athletes connect with representatives from corporate America and, with any luck, find themselves a steady paycheck. Lezak is the oldest swimmer here by nearly a decade, and if this doesn't work he's got some thinking to do. "I'm committed to swim through the summer," he says. "Then, it's like, 'Is this the right thing for me?' I'm married and I want a family."
Many elite swimmers started out as teen prodigies, but Lezak, a native of Irvine, Calif., didn't make his Olympic debut until he was 24. "I never made any huge leaps," he says. "I just got a little better each year." All four of his gold medals have come in relays; he won his only individual medal, a bronze, in Beijing. After Lezak helped preserve Phelps's quest for a $1 million bonus from Speedo for seven gold medals in one Olympics, many wags joked that Phelps owed him a cut of the loot. But Phelps and Lezak have never been close. There's nine years between them, and Phelps has spent most of his life in a Baltimore pool. The two haven't seen each other since an awards ceremony in November—and no, there was no gift. Lezak says he swam for his country, not for Phelps, so none was necessary. "Jason was kind of like the dad of our group," says Sandeno. "He's one of those all-American, clean-cut, very nice guys."
In any other era, Lezak's career already would be long over. In the 1970s, Mark Spitz had to quit swimming when he was 22 because he had to get a job. Today, thanks to endorsement deals, even for second-tier stars, swimming is the job. They must train up to three times a day, 11 months a year, just to sustain their top times. Races are routinely decided by 0.04 seconds, and those razor-thin margins take four years of training to earn. "Now is the time to put the hay in the barn," says USA Swimming head Chuck Wielgus. In other words, even if money comes back into the sport in 2010, it might be too late for some London 2012 hopefuls.
For now, that includes Lezak, though his chances of competing in London, at age 36, are slim. But he's still having fun, so he'll keep trying to make the money work. And he's made an impression on Hildenbiddle. "I would love to have you on our team," the exec tells him when the bell rings and their date ends. In a few weeks, Lezak expects to have a deal with Mutual of Omaha. But it'll be small, not enough on its own. Just like in Beijing, Jason Lezak is on his last lap, he's still behind and time is running out.