By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 11 -- Anyone who believed Michael Phelps's pursuit of a record eight Olympic gold medals belonged solely to him should have stood on the pool deck Monday morning at the National Aquatics Center. Phelps did his part in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle, swimming a wonderful opening leg. But then, all he could do was watch, wait, hope. 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 -- he won one gold before Monday, and hoped for seven more -- Lezak delivered what could fairly be described as a transcendent performance. Trailing the favored French team by more than half a second when he dove in the pool -- and facing France's Alain Bernard, the world record holder in the 100-meter free, head to head -- Lezak turned failure into triumph, and forever became an integral part of whatever Phelps accomplishes here.
"His last 50 meters were absolutely incredible," Phelps said. "He had a perfect finish."
Lezak's blistering leg of 46.06 seconds -- the fastest of any of the 32 men who swam in the final, the fastest split in the event's history -- overcame a fading Bernard over the final 15 meters. Lezak touched in 3 minutes 8.24 seconds -- a world record by nearly four seconds. A blink later -- all of eight hundredths of a second -- Bernard's hand hit the wall. Upon realization that the gold was saved, Phelps flexed his body strenuously on the deck, coaxing a guttural scream -- as exhilarating a moment as there is likely to be at these Olympics.
"I never lost hope," Lezak 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. . . . I had more adrenaline going than I've ever had in my life."
He swam the final length of the pool in 24.56 seconds, a full nine-tenths of a second faster than Bernard, who declined to answer questions from English-speaking reporters afterward. Clearly, reputations were forged -- for both men -- over those final 50 meters, when an American deficit turned into an advantage.
"I don't think anyone could have done a better job than Jason did," said Garrett Weber-Gale, who swam the second leg. "No doubt."
"Jason is the most phenomenal closer I've ever seen in my life," said Cullen Jones, whose slow third leg put the Americans behind.
But because Lezak can close, Phelps's chances at surpassing Mark Spitz -- and the seven gold medals he won in 1972 in Munich -- remain, stunningly, intact. The two races in which he has won gold thus far -- the 400 individual medley and the relay -- were to be perhaps his most precarious. Now, he has won them both.
The French had never won a medal in this event, but came in as the top seed -- and even talked some trash beforehand, with one swimmer, Frédérick Bousquet, suggesting that the Americans feared them.
"They had talked a lot about it," Lezak said, "and we would just rather do it in the pool."
Yet Phelps, specifically, and the U.S. team in general, had reason to be concerned -- if not absolutely scared -- because four years ago butterfly specialist Ian Crocker swam a poor leg in this event, and the other swimmers, Phelps included, couldn't overcome that. They settled for one of Phelps's two bronzes in an Olympics in which he won six golds -- a race that was anchored by Lezak.
"Michael and Jason, they remembered that race," Jones said. Lezak spoke to the team about that disappointment -- as well as a silver medal performance in 2000 that he also anchored.
By comparison, the other developments at the "Water Cube" on Monday morning were pedestrian. Japan's Kosuke Kitajima won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke, backing up his performance from four years ago with a world record performance of 58.91 seconds. In doing so, he vanquished his fading rival, American Brendan Hansen, who slid to fourth in what was his only individual race here because he had already failed to even make the team in the 200-meter version of the discipline.
"It's just been a really tough year for me," Hansen said. "Obviously, losing the 200 at trials kind of affects your confidence."
Confidence issues are everywhere at this meet. Katie Hoff, who came here entered in the same number of individual events as Phelps -- who also grew up training at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club -- won the first medal of her Olympic career Sunday. That, though, came with mixed feelings. It was a bronze in the 400-meter individual medley, an event in which she held the world record.
With 50 meters to go in Monday's 400 freestyle, she looked remarkably poised, ready to take gold. She held a lead of more than a second in an event in which she tends to get stronger, rather than fade. But over the final half-length of the pool, Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington charged, seemingly from nowhere -- just as Lezak would do later. She touched in 4:03.22 for gold -- a devastating seven hundredths of a second ahead of Hoff.
Silver, though, can mean different things to different people. The Americans received something of an unexpected medal in the women's 100 butterfly, an event won by Australian star Libby Trickett. Over the final 50 meters, Christine Magnuson, a 22-year-old first-time Olympian from Illinois, overcame another Australian, Jessicah Schipper, to finish second, shaving four-tenths of a second off her time from U.S. trials.
"I just came in with the attitude that anybody is beatable on a given day," she said.
That could even include Phelps. But on a day when it appeared he might lose, he did not. He is one reason for that. But if Phelps completes this epic task, years from now, he might want to place a phone call to one Jason Lezak. Without him, there would have been a different color medal on Monday. Because of him, Phelps's chance of history, for those eight golds, lives.
"I think Michael knows we didn't do this for him," Lezak said. "He was a part of it, and we were a part of it."