Touch and go
BEIJING -- Cullen Jones went airborne. Michael Phelps let out a roar that probably could have been heard back in Baltimore. And Garrett Weber-Gale looked as if he might crush Phelps with a hug on the pool deck.
It was all about one man in the water, who unleashed the swim of a lifetime. Jason Lezak of Irvine, who trains mostly by himself without a coach, did it alone this morning at the “Water Cube” with the fastest relay leg ever, anchoring the men’s 400-meter freestyle relay to a world record at the Olympics.
All for one and one for all, so to speak. And in the Olympic world of Phelps, a second gold medal and a seismic step toward what would be a record eight.
He reached No. 2, which could be the most difficult one of all, when Lezak chased down then-world-record holder Alain Bernard of France in the final few meters and out-touched him at the wall.
The U.S. won the relay in a world-record 3 minutes 8.24 seconds, to France’s 3:08.32. If Phelps wins eight golds -- which would eclipse Mark Spitz’s record of seven, accomplished in 1972 -- then perhaps Lezak should get a big cut of that million-dollar bonus from Speedo.
Lezak’s final leg will be talked about for years. France had taken a big lead on the third leg, going up by 0.59 at the 300-meter mark, and Bernard was looking smooth and powerful, increasing his lead even more at 350 meters.
Even Lezak thought he had little chance with 50 meters remaining. His anchor leg was 46.06 seconds. “There’s no way,” he said. “Then I said, ‘It’s ridiculous. It’s the Olympics and I’m here for the USA.’ I honestly thought all those things all at once and I got a supercharge and took it from there. I was unreal.”
Said Phelps, who led off the relay: “Jason swam the fastest relay split of all time. His last 50 meters were absolutely incredible. He had a perfect finish.”
The water was still shaking, and the pool deck looked as if it was about to do the same when Lezak finished. The other relay member was Jones, who had been on the relay team in the prelims, which set the world record Sunday night. He was the only one of that four to swim in the final.
“I think this will be one of the races he’ll never forget the rest of his life,” Jones said.
Word had filtered over to the U.S. camp that the French team had been dismissive of the Americans’ chances in the relay.
For 300 meters, well, Bernard, Frederick Bousquet and company were right.
“Bob [Bowman] had said that the French team was saying some stuff, talking a little bit of trash,” Phelps said. “It fired me up more than anything else. We were all fired up.”
Said Lezak: “Before the race, we all knew the way the French had swum in the prelims that when they added their best two guys, it was going to be a tight race. They had talked a lot about it, and we would just rather do it in the pool. They pulled that time off without their best two guys.
“I knew it was going to come down to the end, and I was hoping to be ahead, but I never lost hope,” he said. “I don’t know how I was able to take it back that fast, because I’ve never been able to come anywhere near that for the last 50.”
That wasn’t the only stunning finish on a riveting morning of swimming.
American Katie Hoff was out-touched by Rebecca Adlington of Britain in the 400 freestyle and finished second. Hoff had led by 1.08 seconds heading into the final turn.
Adlington went 4:03.22 to Hoff’s 4:03.29.
“I gave it everything I had possibly, but they got me on the end. . . . I feel like I should have got my hand on the wall first,” Hoff said.
In addition to the relay, there were two other world records: Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe in the 100 backstroke in the semifinals (58.77 seconds) and defending Olympic champion Kosuke Kitajima of Japan in the final of the 100 breaststroke (58.91).
Kitajima broke Brendan Hansen’s world record of 59.13, which had stood since Aug. 1, 2006. Hansen finished a disappointing fourth.
“I felt great the first 50,” Hansen said. “It’s just been a really tough year for me. Obviously, losing the 200 breaststroke at trials kind of affects your confidence a little bit. I felt good going into the race tonight, but obviously everybody brought their A game. Everybody swam really, really well. Those times are the top times in the world this year.”
He congratulated his longtime rival Kitajima.
“I kept it in broken English, so that he could understand me,” Hansen said.
“But I said, ‘Congratulations, man. That’s an awesome swim.’ I know if I had done that in front of him, he would have done the same exact thing. You’ve got to tip your hat off to someone that goes 58.9 in the Olympic final. It’s just a hell of a swim.”