BEIJING -- Jason Lezak and his new best friend . . . the last 50 meters in the pool.
That brought him his first Olympic medal in an individual event with another stirring finish at the Water Cube this morning. Lezak, of Irvine, was fifth at the first 50 and brought it in the second half, finishing third in the star-studded 100-meter freestyle, in 47.67 seconds.
He tied for the bronze with Cesar Cielo Filho of Brazil. Winning the gold was Alain Bernard of France (47.21) and taking the silver was Eamon Sullivan of Australia (47.32). Ties in Olympic swimming are rare, and Lezak couldn’t remember ever being part of one in any big international meet.
Tying with Cielo: Talk about reaching for the sky for the 32-year-old Lezak, who has two medals here, bringing his Olympic total to six. The previous five have come on relays.
By now, everyone should know that you don’t bet against Lezak in the final 50. Bernard certainly learned that lesson in a classic duel on the anchor leg of the 400 freestyle relay Monday morning, when Lezak came from behind to grab gold for the U.S. men.
Relays giveth, and relays taketh.
The U.S. women, who had held the world record, took third in the 800-meter freestyle relay, in 7:46.33, behind Australia and China. Australia lowered the world record, going 7:44.31. Stephanie Rice won her third gold medal here, swimming in the relay’s leadoff spot.
This finished the morning for the Americans on a somewhat flat note. Allison Schmitt and Natalie Coughlin had disappointing legs, with Schmitt leading off at 1:57.71 and Coughlin following in 1:57.19. A little more than a month ago, Schmitt went 1:55.92 at the Olympic trials in Omaha.
“I had to catch the people in front,” said Katie Hoff, whose anchor leg was an impressive 1:54.73. “I did my best and ran out of room at the end, and that’s all I could do.”
Funny thing about third place at the Olympics. It brings disappointment in some quarters and individual redemption in others.
For Lezak, it was definitely the latter after failing to get out of preliminaries in the 100 freestyle at Athens.
“It’s been eating at me for a long time,” Lezak said. “For me to go out there and accomplish that medal, I’m really excited.”
Lezak went a bit more in depth after a news conference, saying he had issues in trying to manage a busy event schedule four years ago.
“My strategy was to save a little bit on the preliminaries of the 100 and I didn’t swim it the right way,” he said. “Instead of going out hard and backing off at the end, I went out easy and I tried to come on hard at the end and that’s not my style.
“I couldn’t get it done and that was a real hard experience for me.”
Four years is a long time to wait to erase the sting of Athens. Lezak took a great leap -- or is that swim? -- forward to do just that with his stunning performance in the relay.
Though the benefits of the relay were enormous, the emotional drain and drama also were wearing on Lezak.
“Momentum was great, but physically, it took a toll on me,” he said. “I’m lucky I survived out there. I’m feeling a little tired right now.”
The biggest upset of the morning came in the women’s 200-meter butterfly, and to say it was crowd-pleasing would be an understatement.
Liu Zige and Jiao Liuyang, both of China, went one-two in the final, both under the existing world record of Jessicah Schipper of Australia, who was third. Liu won in 2:04.18; her personal best had been 2:06.46.
Kosuke Kitajima of Japan made history by winning his second gold medal at these Games, taking the 200 breaststroke, in 2:07.64. He became the first swimmer to win the 100 and 200 breaststroke events in consecutive Olympics.
Rebecca Soni of USC put herself in position to win her first gold, putting up the fastest-qualifying time in the 200-meter breaststroke, going 2:22.64 in the semifinals.
“Definitely looking forward to the final,” Soni said. “I am a little nervous about it already. Got to relax and have fun with it. Silver medal in the 100 took a little pressure off me and put me in a better frame of mind. It gave me a lot of confidence because that is not my best event.”
Soni could win three medals here, two in the breaststroke events, and she will swim that leg in the 400 medley relay on the final morning of the meet.
In other semifinals, Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte went one-two to qualify for the finals of the 200 backstroke. Coughlin was the top qualifier in 100 freestyle. Lastly, Lochte and Michael Phelps qualified first and second in the 200 individual medley, respectively.
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Men’s 200M Breaststroke
*--* Medal winners G: Kosuke Kitajima (Japan) Time: 2:07.64 S: Brenton Rickard (Australia) Time: 2:08.88 B: Hugues Duboscq (France) Score: 2:08.94 *--*
Men’s 100M Freestyle
*--* Medal winners G: Alain Bernard (France) Time: 47.21 S: Eamon Sullivan (Australia) Score: 47.32 B: (Tie) Lezak/Cielo Filho (U.S./Brazil) Time: 47.67 *--*
Women’s 200M Butterfly
*--* Medal winners G: Liu Zige (China) Time: 2:04.18 S: Jiao Liuyang (China) Time: 2:04.72 B: Jessicah Schipper (Australia) Time: 2:06.26 *--*
Women’s 4x200M Free Relay
*--* Medal winners G: Australia Time: 7:44.31 S: China Time: 7:45.93 B: United States Time: 7:46.33 *--*