The following is a reprint from ESPN
Monday, August 11, 2008
'No way' turns into 'no quit' for Lezak, men's relay team
By Pat Forde
BEIJING -- Halfway through what might have been the greatest comeback swim in Olympic history, Jason Lezak peered through his goggles at the lane to his right and briefly abandoned hope.
"The thought really entered my mind for a split second," Lezak said. "There's no way."
Could you blame him? That thought already had been screaming through the minds of everyone in the National Aquatics Center plus several million Americans watching at home. It almost certainly was on the mind of one Michael Phelps, the leadoff swimmer in this 400-meter freestyle relay who had so much riding on Lezak's straining shoulders.
The anchor swimmer had gone into the pool well behind Frenchman Alain Bernard and, after busting it for 50 meters, had not appreciably closed the gap. The only comfort was that Bernard, who began this race as the world-record holder in the 100 freestyle, had not put the race out of reach -- something he all but guaranteed last week by declaring the French would "smash" the Americans in this event.
Now Bernard was a mere 50 meters from backing up the boast. Lezak was running out of water.
When he flipped and thrust off the wall, he was still half a body length behind. That's a country mile in a sprint race. The United States was going down and taking Phelps' quest for eight gold medals in a single Games with it.
But just as quickly as that glimmer of despair flitted through Lezak's mind, it was shoved aside by fresh determination.
No way met no quit.
"I changed," he said. "I thought, 'That's ridiculous. I'm at the Olympic Games, I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts, I'm going after it.'
"I just got a super charge."
What transpired during the final 50 meters was the stuff of Disney movies. It was the kind of thing that should land Lezak a co-starring role with Phelps on cereal boxes and network morning shows. And if Phelps does complete the great eight and pocket a $1 million Speedo bonus, he should cut a check for one-eighth of that total to the guy who kept the quest alive: Jason Lezak.
"His last 50 meters were absolutely unbelievable," Phelps said.
The 32-year-old Lezak, a three-time Olympian who has been an American anchorman nearly as long as Ted Koppel, steadily closed in on Bernard. Lezak hugged the lane line, drafting off Bernard like a NASCAR driver.
It was a welcome change of tactics for a guy who is accustomed to being drafted upon by trailing swimmers.
With every powerful pull and explosive kick, Lezak gained inches. With 25 meters to go, the crowd volume picked up, as the impossible was upgraded to highly unlikely. With 10 meters to go, the crowd was roaring, as Lezak pushed it into the improbable range. At five meters, it suddenly was possible.
"I was pounding on the block, saying the f-word," admitted second-leg swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale. "I was saying, 'Come on!'
"It was an amazing thing to watch. I was saying to myself, 'If anybody in the world can pull this off, it's Jason.'"
In the final stroke, Lezak pulled it off. He thrust his right arm for the wall, desperation and determination meeting perfect timing. The lunge beat Bernard by an eye blink. Lezak somehow touched first, as the fans and his relay teammates both exploded.
The winning time: a world-record 3:08.24. Winning margin: eight-hundredths of a second. It was the closest 400-meter relay in Olympic history and the second-closest Olympic relay of any distance. (In 1984, the U.S. nipped Germany by four-hundredths of a second in the 800 free relay.)
And Lezak swam the fastest 100-meter relay split in world history, a shocking 46.06 seconds. His split was faster than Bernard's by 0.67 seconds. Smashing.
When you're the world-record holder but you cannot hold a lead in your specialty, that's not good. When that happens after you've talked smack, that's worse. At least it took a superhuman swim to beat Bernard.
Afterward I asked the French technical team director, Claude Fauquet, about Bernard's prediction.
"Well," Fauquet said, "I think he got it wrong."
I think so.
"We didn't react to it," Phelps said. "It just got us fired up."
Not nearly as fired up as they were after the race.
Phelps was screaming like a madman, his face contorting and muscles straining, as his quest careened from incredible domination Sunday in the 400 individual medley to incredible drama Monday. On paper, this was to be his toughest event. If another one turns up tougher, he'll lose.
"As you could see, I was pretty excited," Phelps said. "I was very emotional."
So was Weber-Gale, who won his first Olympic medal. The third relay member, Cullen Jones, won his first gold, as well -- and nearly fell in the pool while jumping up and down. And even Lezak was howling through the fatigue.
"We were all so excited," he said. "We were just yelling at each other."
This was all part of a grander plan for Phelps, but this relay held its own import to each of the participants. Especially for Lezak.
For years, he's been considered America's premier freestyle relay swimmer, but he also has swum on the only two Olympic 400 free relays the U.S. has ever lost. He was on the 2000 team that was nipped by Australia by 0.21 seconds and was the anchor in 2004 as the Americans finished third behind South Africa and the Netherlands.
For Mr. Relay, that was intolerable. So at a team meeting, Lezak pounded home the importance of returning America to the top of the podium in this event.
"I could see in his face the pain of losing like that," Weber-Gale said.
Lezak wanted his relay team to swim as a unit, not as four independent contractors brought together by nothing more than speed. He wanted to remind his teammates that being first on the heat sheet doesn't guarantee being first to the wall.
"People always step up and do things out of the ordinary at the Olympics," he said.
Now, after turning no way into no quit, Jason Lezak is the one who stepped out of the ordinary and into newfound Olympic glory.
Lezak's classic finish delivers gold
American turns in stirring anchor leg
By Alan Abrahamson, NBCOlympics.com
Posted Monday, August 11, 2008 12:32 AM ET
BEIJING -- The U.S. men's 4x100m free relay team won gold Monday in the most exciting, most record-breaking, most amazing, thrilling, unbelievable relay anyone could ever imagine, evidence of exactly what Jason Lezak, who swam the greatest anchor leg in relay history, had to say when it was all over:
"People always step up and do things out of the ordinary at the Olympics."
This was even so much more. Extraordinary in every regard.
The U.S. men -- Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak -- set a world record, finishing in 3:08.24. France took second, Australia third.
The victory gave Michael Phelps his second gold medal here in Beijing -- in a race that had shaped up to be one of the most difficult on his quest for eight. The French and even the Australians had widely been considered prerace favorites.
"He's on a mission to win eight," Jones said of Phelps, "and we're happy to be a part of it."
The French, moreover, had been smack-talking before the race.
Jason Lezak storms from behind as the U.S. men win gold and smash the world record.
Afterward, asked on television who's talking now, Weber-Gale said, "We are. United States of America."
"C'est le sport," one of the French racers, Fabien Gilot, said afterward, which means literally, "It's sport," but which, in this context, really means, "That's why they race the race."
American swimmers had won every edition of this relay in the Olympics from 1964 through 1996. In Sydney in 2000, the Aussies won, the Americans finishing second. In Athens in 2004, the South Africans took gold, the Dutch silver, the Americans bronze.
So this, for the Americans, meant redemption as well.
In particular for Lezak, who had swum the third leg on that 2000 relay, anchor in 2004.
"I had more adrenaline going than I ever had in my life," Lezak said.
"America has a great tradition of winning that relay," he also said, adding just a moment later, "All of us knew what we're capable of, but to actually do it, to get that tradition back -- it's a phenomenal feeling. Still, right now, I'm in disbelief."
Swimming is a sport that translates elegantly into numbers, and the numbers from this one race will be studied and analyzed for years to come:
Before the preliminaries at these Games, the world record in the 4x100 relay stood at 3:12.46. That mark was set by an American team swimming in 2006.
One day ago, during the prelims, a U.S. team broke that record, swimming 3:12.23. (Under Olympic rules, the swimmers in the prelims get gold medals, too. Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers and Ben Wildman-Tobriner swam with Jones.)
One day later, in the Olympic final, to go and then chop 4 seconds off that mark is -- well, it's not done. It took 20 years for the record to drop 4 seconds to the 3:12 range. In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, an American team lowered the record to 3:16.53.
But that's not all.
The times in the prelims were so fast that it took 3:13.8 to get into Monday's final. Russia, at 3:14.07, didn't make it -- a second and a half off the world record, and not good enough for the Olympic final. Incredible.
During the final, five teams went under the mark the U.S. team had set in Sunday's prelims -- the Americans, French, Australians, Italians and Swedes. World record-breaking times for the Italians and Swedes -- and no medal.