ATHENS, Aug. 21 -- Brendan Hansen sat in the waiting area Saturday night at the Olympic Aquatic Center, just moments before the final event of the swim meet, the men's medley relay. He looked to his right and found Ian Crocker, world record holder, 100-meter butterfly. He looked to his left and found Jason Lezak, American record holder, 100 freestyle. He looked across the room and found Aaron Peirsol, owner of two of the three fastest times ever in the 100 backstroke.
Hansen, who happens to be the world record holder in the 100 breaststroke himself, considered what was around him.
The U.S. men's 4x100 medley relay team, Ian Crocker, Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen and Jason Lezak (not shown) celebrates its gold medal effort.
(Shaun Best -- Reuters)
"We don't look at each other as superstars," Hansen said. "But when we get together, we feed off each other. And that adrenaline level just going into the race was so high because I was going out there with those three other guys."
Hansen and those three other guys didn't disappoint, capping off a historic meet for the U.S. men's team by surging to a world record in the medley relay.
The race left the members of the U.S. team, tucked in a section of seats right at poolside, chanting and cheering, waving flags and embracing. When Lezak, finishing that final freestyle leg, touched the wall, the clock read 3 minutes 30.68 seconds, nearly a second better than the record time this same combination -- Peirsol to Hansen to Crocker to Lezak -- set last summer at the world championships in Spain.
For a meet in which Michael Phelps set lofty goals, knocked them off one by one, and then handed another potential spot in history -- the butterfly leg in the relay -- to Crocker, the ending was sublime. It was the last of the U.S. men's nine gold medals, more than the team had earned in any Olympics since 1976. It brought their total medal count to 18, also the most in 28 years. And, with Phelps's gesture providing the backdrop, it typified what this team -- which, a week ago, looked like it might stumble here -- ultimately represents.
"I told them tonight, I don't look at the gold medals," Coach Eddie Reese said. "What I look for is effort -- under good conditions, bad conditions, no matter what it is. And I look for how they take care of each other -- after good swims, after bad swims. And this has been one of the most phenomenal teams I've ever been on."
Just prior to the men's race, four U.S. women swam the same medley relay, an event the Americans had won the past three Olympics. When Natalie Coughlin kicked off the race by setting an Olympic record in the 100 backstroke, and Amanda Beard turned in the best time of the eight breaststrokers in the race, it looked like the women would finish a somewhat disappointing meet with a jarring moment of their own.
When Beard touched the wall, Jenny Thompson dove in for the butterfly leg with a lead of 1.68 seconds over Australia, swimming in an adjacent lane. There may not be a better relay swimmer in American history than Thompson. But she is 31, and in the lane next to her was Australia's Petria Thomas.
Thomas buried Thompson with a blistering leg of 56.67 seconds, among the fastest in history. By the time Thompson made the exchange with freestyler Kara Lynn Joyce, the Aussies were out of sight, on their way to a world record of 3:57.32, leaving the United States with silver, 1.8 seconds behind.
By winning her second medal of these Games -- both silvers, both in relays -- Thompson now has more Olympic medals than any American athlete, male or female, in any sport. The medley relay was her 12th in four Olympics, breaking a tie with fellow swimmers Mark Spitz and Matt Biondi.
Yet who cares, really? Not Thompson. For the first time, she was swimming at an Olympics without her mother, who died earlier this year. Now, her Olympic career -- which began in 1992 in Barcelona -- is over.
"Tonight was a little bittersweet," Thompson said. "I was feeling a little nostalgic. . . . I always try to explain the feeling to the team that I love the sport, and I want everyone to love it as much as I do, and to appreciate what you have while you have it."
Though Reese called the U.S. women the best "fighters" at the Olympics, they finished with 10 medals and three golds, both the lowest totals since 1988. They were shut out of the final individual event, the 50 freestyle, in which Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands won gold -- added to earlier silver and bronze medals -- by beating France's Malia Metella and Australia's Lisbeth Lenton.
"As Coach [Mark] Schubert said in our meeting today," said Coughlin, who finished with two golds, two silvers and a bronze, "when you set really, really high goals, you're not going to always achieve all of them. But it's really important that you step back and look at what you have achieved. I'm really happy with the entire meet."
The time, really, was for the men to be happy with the entire meet. That theme played out earlier in the evening, when Larsen Jensen hung with the incomparable Australian, Grant Hackett, in the 1,500 freestyle, an event on which the Aussies stake their national pride.
Jensen, who kept little reminder notes of his target time everywhere at home -- including on the toilet seat -- was within .16 of a second of Hackett headed into the final 100 meters. There, though, Hackett appeared to press a button, and swam away. He won in 14:43.40, an Olympic record. Right there, though, was Jensen winning the silver, setting an American record of 14:45.29.
Jensen smiled broadly afterward, and deservedly so. But the night -- and, in some ways, the entire Olympics -- belonged to the relay team. Peirsol got it started by swimming a world record time in the backstroke, 53.45 seconds. Hansen, who had twice been beaten by Japan's Kosuke Kitajima during this meet, held that advantage, swimming evenly with Kitajima.
Crocker's, of course, was the most intriguing leg, for Phelps had beaten him in the 100 butterfly 24 hours earlier to earn the relay spot. But Phelps -- who already had seven medals, and stood to win another from the relay because he swam in the preliminary heat -- stepped aside for Crocker on Friday night, a gesture with which Crocker was initially uneasy.
"I felt like it really was a gift that was too large to accept," Crocker said.
Yet he accepted it. And he didn't disappoint. Though legs of relays are typically faster because swimmers can anticipate the start, Crocker's swim of 50.28 seconds was nearly half a second faster than his world record in the 100 fly. When Lezak finally climbed from the pool, the four hugged tightly, a tiny football huddle. Fifty meters away, cheering in the stands like a kid at his first baseball game, was Phelps.
"He's the best, man," Peirsol said. "We're a team, and that shows you right there. What he did, that's what this team's about. That's what we've been doing this whole meet. Everyone here understands the sacrifice everyone makes. He did that, and you know what? Look what happened."