Anyone who thought Michael Phelps's pursuit of a record eight Olympic gold medals was a singular endeavor should have stood on the pool deck Monday morning at the National Aquatic Center here. Phelps did his part in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle, swimming a wonderful first leg. But then, all he could do is watch. Three other men, and those they swam against, would either keep his dream alive, or allow it to fizzle.
Chalk this gold up, then, to Jason Lezak, a 32-year-old veteran of three Olympics who is, by comparison to Phelps, unknown. But when Phelps's week seemed to be crumbling before his eyes, Lezak delivered what could fairly be described as a transcendent performance. Trailing the favored French team by more than half a second when he dived in the pool -- and facing France's Alain Bernard, the world record holder in the event -- Lezak did not let the Americans, or Phelps, falter.
Rather, his blistering leg overcame a fading Bernard over the final 15 meters. He touched in 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds -- a world record. A blink later -- all of eight hundredths of a second -- Bernard's hand hit the wall. The gold saved, Phelps flexed his body strenuously on the deck, screaming into the air -- as exhilarating a moment as there is likely to be at these Olympics.
"His last 50 meters were absolutely incredible," said Phelps afterward. "He had a perfect finish."
The French had never won a medal in this event, but came in as top seed. From 1964, the first year it was contested, to the 1996 Atlanta Games, the United States won every gold medal awarded in the 4x100 free relay. But the last two Olympics yielded silver and bronze. The performance four years ago in Athens cost Phelps what could have been a seventh gold medal there, and it arose in large part because Ian Crocker, the butterfly specialist who had a difficult Olympics as he battled illness, swam a poor first leg that was too much for the Americans to overcome.
The competition Monday was, in some ways, more fierce. "The French are the favorites," Bob Bowman, Phelps's personal coach and an assistant for the U.S. men's team, said the night before the final.
There was reason to believe that even after the American "B" team of Nathan Adrian, Jones, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Matt Grevers broke the world record in the preliminary heats. The U.S. had reason to believe it could go much faster in the final. So, too, did the French -- who were second after prelims but also topped the old world mark, even without the services of Bernard and their second-best in the discipline, Fabien Gilot.
"Tomorrow [morning]," U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese said Sunday night, after the prelims, "two seconds better than that relay will not win."
With that in mind, Reese and the coaching staff juggled their own lineup, inserting Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale -- who won the 100 freestyle at trials -- and Lezak.
The start of the race came just 67 minutes after Phelps swam a semifinal heat of the 200 freestyle, the only individual event he entered in Athens in which he did not win gold.
Now, though, he holds the world record at that distance. But he was mindful of the relay, and posted just the fourth-best time, 1:46.28, when he wanted something in the 1:45-range.
"I just wanted to save as much energy as I could for the relay later," he said between swims.
That strategy, it seems, worked, because Phelps swam a solid leg to open the relay, trailing only Australian sprinter Eamon Sullivan. The rivalry was under way.