My main obstacles were injuries. I made four Olympic teams with two torn labrums. I broke my foot three months before the national championships and still won both of my events only four weeks after removing my cast. I qualified for my fourth Olympic team six months after knee surgery at 36. Never ever let obstacles stand in the way of your goals.
I had the pleasure to interview Jason Lezak. Jason is an eight-time Olympic medalist and four-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer. At 32, the oldest man on the U.S. swim team and tri-captain, Jason anchored the U.S. men’s 4×100 freestyle relay team to a come-from-behind victory, stealing gold from the French at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. You can expect to see his leg of the race, the fastest 100m relay split in history (46.06), for decades to come in sports highlights. In 2019, he signed on as General Manager of the Cali Condors, one of four U.S. clubs in the newly formed International Swimming League. Jason put together a roster of superstar athletes including world record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel, and one of the world’s best breaststrokers and two-time Olympic gold medalist Lilly King. The inaugural ISL season kicked off in October and will culminate in a championship meet at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on December 20–21, 2019. As a proud husband and father, highly respected athlete and Olympic gold medalist, Jason is an inspiration to a wide variety of audiences. He successfully balances his family life with motivating others and sharing his stories.
Thank you so much for joining us Jason. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up.
Igrew up in Irvine, Calif. and always loved sports as a kid. I began swimming at age five and also played soccer, basketball and baseball at a young age. I continued playing basketball for two years into high school, but adding water polo along with swimming made it tough to juggle all three. I finished high school as an All-American in both swimming and water polo but made the choice to only pursue swimming at the college level.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?
When I was a young athlete, I had two big dreams of what I wanted to accomplish in sports. One was to play in the NBA and the other was to swim in the Olympics. Being a Southern California kid and playing point guard, there was nobody better to look up to than Magic Johnson. In swimming my role model was Matt Biondi, who was the best swimmer in the late 80’s and early 90’s. They both inspired me to reach the highest level in those sports.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I definitely needed a lot of help along the way. Early in my life my parents were always there for me and supported me when things did not go my way. At age 10 I was one of the fastest swimmers in the country and just a few years later I became more of an average swimmer on my team. There were plenty of times I wanted to quit swimming, but my parents encouraged me not to give up and helped me understand that sports are supposed to be fun. Once I was able to let go of my expectations and just have fun with swimming again, my times started dropping and I slowly rose up the ranks to be one of the fastest high school swimmers in the country.
Later in my life, my wife helped me get through a tough time after the 2004 Olympics. I was ranked #1 in the world and made a tactical mistake by swimming too easy in the preliminaries, which meant I didn’t make it to the semifinals for a chance at the gold medal. There were also times I thought about retirement, but she kept me focused. I came back with the best performances of my career in 2008 at 32 years old when most people didn’t think I could do it.
Thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview.
Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?
Swimming is one of the toughest sports and teaches so many great lessons that can be applied in business. The first time I spoke in front of a large group I was nervous and not very good at it. So I used the strategies I learned from training as a swimmer and dedicated myself to learning how to speak better and more effectively deliver my message. Along the way I became much more comfortable and I think I’m a much better speaker these days.
One of the reasons I was so successful in sports was that I could learn from mistakes. I made plenty of mistakes in business just like I did in sports, but instead of letting them bring me down I use them as motivation to get better next time.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects new you are working on now?
Currently, I am the General Manager of the Cali Condors, which is one of four U.S. clubs in the International Swimming League (ISL). The ISL is the first-ever professional swimming league and is poised to take the sport to another level. Although I am a little jealous this was not around when I was swimming, I am so excited to be a part of it on the business side. Being a GM enables me to give the next generation of swimmers more opportunities to make a career out of the sport — something that wasn’t possible for many in the past. A lot of swimmers who choose to pursue their athletic dreams after college still have to work a regular job in order to make ends meet. Trying to train and work at the same time isn’t the best way to reach maximum potential. The ISL is giving more swimmers the opportunity to achieve their dreams and do something they love. In the future, we are going to see swimmers growing up that not only want to swim in the Olympics, but also want to swim for the Cali Condors. I love it.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?
I coached myself the last six years of my career, so I learned how to take care of myself before I transitioned out of swimming. The most important skill I honed as an athlete is not being afraid of failure.
Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture”. Can you share your “5 Work Ethic Lessons That Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Hard work — This is simple, nothing is given. You have to earn it.
- Dedication — Many people are willing to work hard but can’t or won’t dedicate the time to working hard on a consistent basis to achieve success.
- Sacrifice — Throughout my career, both in and out of the pool, the more I was willing to sacrifice the better I got. Easy examples would be giving up certain foods, getting more sleep, missing social events, and more.
- Perseverance — I finally achieved my ultimate success at the age of 32, swimming against athletes 10+ years younger, after coming close to my goals many times but falling short.
- Overcoming obstacles — My main obstacles were injuries. I made four Olympic teams with two torn labrums. I broke my foot three months before the national championships and still won both of my events only four weeks after removing my cast. I qualified for my fourth Olympic team six months after knee surgery at 36. Never ever let obstacles stand in the way of your goals.
What would you advise to a young person who aspires to follow your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
Always believe in yourself and never give up. There were plenty of times in my career where I could have given up and if I did, I would have given up on the race I’m now most known for (anchoring the world-record breaking 4x100m men’s freestyle relay and winning gold in a come-from-behind victory). I made the choice time after time to continue to fight. If I would have listened to other people telling me to quit or that I would never make it, I never would have competed in my third and fourth Olympics. I believed in myself even when others didn’t.
You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have tried to share my experiences, both the great ones and the challenges, with as many people as possible. I want to give others hope and motivation to chase their dreams. My stories of setbacks and perseverance resonate well with people and encourage them to keep pushing forward.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
If you fall behind, run faster. Never give up, never surrender and rise up against the odds.
– Jesse Jackson
I would change the word “run” to “swim”, but anyone can use this idea with another word to keep going at whatever they are trying to accomplish. My career was built on never giving up.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would choose one of two athletes who motivated me so much when I was growing up — Magic Johnson or Matt Biondi. I’ve already had a few talks with Matt, so Magic is definitely someone I would like to meet. Not only because I looked up to him as a kid, but because of the great success he has enjoyed after his playing career ended. His achievements in business are just as impressive as his basketball career.