He was, however, the first to raise his hand to accompany Annie to meets, especially the many in Indianapolis, 4½ hours from his house in Beverly Hills, Mich., and home to one of his favorite restaurants, St. Elmo’s Steak House, where their meet nights would sometimes end.
“He wasn’t a times guy,” Annie Lazor said Saturday. “He was an experience guy. ‘I get to spend four days with my daughter in one of my favorite cities? Hell yes, I’m going.’ That’s what it was about for him. Because he was just so invested in being there with me. He just didn’t care about how well I swam. Not that he didn’t care about me having good results. Of course he cared because I cared. But that’s not why he was there.”
Annie Lazor, 26, thought plenty of her father, who died at age 61 on April 25, this week as she ground through her first meet since it happened — which also happened to be the most important of her swimming career: the U.S. Olympic trials. It was especially true in the aftermath of Friday night’s final in the 200-meter breaststroke, which Lazor won to clinch a spot in next month’s Tokyo Olympics.
That would have been the moment when an athlete in Lazor’s position might be expected to dedicate her performance to her late father, to look into a camera and say she wanted to win it for him. But it was the one thought, she said, that never crossed her mind. She didn’t need to do any of it — win a race, become an Olympian or earn a medal once she got to Tokyo — for Dave Lazor. “He would never want that,” she said.
“I don’t know if people said this to Annie, and I was just praying they didn’t — but I didn’t want her to come into this meet thinking, ‘I have to do this for my dad,’ ” said Stacey Lazor, Annie’s mother. “As if swimming well — or even if she swam badly — would be some sort of reflection about how much she loved her dad. There was just no question about that.”
That’s not to say Annie didn’t burden herself with the added pressure of swimming for someone else, because she absolutely did. As much as she wanted it for herself, she wanted to win for the three people sitting in the stands at CHI Health Center Arena, down near the turn end, the ones she could see out of the corner of her eye as she stood on the blocks before Friday night’s final: her mother and her two brothers, Devin and Nate.
“The thing I thought about the most this week was that I just really want to give them something to be happy about,” Annie Lazor said, tears streaming down her face and slipping beneath her mask. “They’ve been through so much these last couple months. I just really wanted to give them something to be excited about. That doesn’t mean it overrides the grief we’re feeling, that it makes everything okay. It definitely doesn’t. But I just wanted to do this for them, more than anything.”
Up on the blocks for the final of the 200 breast, she stole a glance at her family, and she would marvel later that it didn’t register in the moment about how odd or sad or painful it was that her dad wasn’t with them. “I think my body was so ready to get the job done,” she said, “that it just didn’t allow myself to distract myself.”
In the next lane over, Lilly King, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, caught Lazor’s eye and mouthed two sentences: “I love you.” And “We’ve got this.”
“That,” Lazor would say later, “was all I needed to hear.”
Back in April 2018, less than two years after a disappointing showing at the 2016 Olympic trials pushed Lazor into retirement at age 21 and about a year after she changed her mind, she had reached out to King, the world’s best breaststroker, through Indiana head coach Ray Looze, to see whether she would be willing to let Lazor join her training group. King immediately said yes, and over the next three years they became training partners and measuring sticks for each other in the pool and close friends out of it.
When Dave Lazor died, King drove five hours from Bloomington, Ind., to attend the visitation, pulling Stacey Lazor aside to offer a promise: She would do everything she could to help put Annie on the Olympic team. On Tuesday night, when King won the 100-meter breaststroke, with Lazor finishing third to fall a half-second shy of earning a spot in Tokyo, King tempered her own celebration out of concern for her friend and teammate.
On Friday night, when Lazor held off King down the stretch to out-touch her by less than three-quarters of a second — both of them, as the top two finishers, earning spots in Tokyo in the event — she practically exploded across the lane line to hug King. Lazor was in tears for much of the next few minutes, pounding her fists into the water, lifting herself out of the pool, walking out toward her family’s seats, locking eyes with them, hugging her fellow competitors and teammates, struggling through her poolside interview with NBC.
In her news conference, Lazor described eloquently the difficulty of “trying to achieve the greatest thing that's ever happened to me while going through the worst thing that's ever happened to me.”
“For the first few weeks,” she said, “it felt like I was choosing grief that day or choosing swimming that day. There was no in-between.”
Later that night, reunited at the hotel, the Lazors shared a hug none of them wanted to see end and spent a while visiting with extended family and friends. By the end of the night, Annie realized she had more than 300 text messages, but she vowed not to respond until she had enough time to do it in a meaningful, thoughtful way.
“I want to carefully respond to each one,” she said, “because I know those people took the time to watch me last night and have been following my journey and I want to make sure they have that time to celebrate with me and feel that they’re as much a part of this as the people who were here.”
On Sunday, the Lazors will go their separate ways again — Annie back to Indiana, Stacey and Nate back to Michigan, Devin back to his job in Dallas. Annie will have about a week at home before heading to Hawaii for Team USA’s pre-Olympics training camp. The hole carved out by the absence of their fifth will be felt in all of them, on that day of all days:
It’s Father’s Day.
“We feel his absence everywhere,” Stacey Lazor said. “My husband was a fantastic father, and he poured his life into these kids. Regardless of what happened and the loss we suffered, I wouldn’t trade being a partner to Dave Lazor for anything. Even though his life was cut short and my kids will miss him and I will miss him, he was just an epic, epic father. He had so much integrity and so much affection for our kids. That’s the legacy.”