Band of Brothers

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By Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING

The great bellow of victory seemed to begin in the soles of Michael Phelps' feet and coil upward through his taut frame, gathering force in that all-world diaphragm, before it came ripping out of his throat. His quest for eight gold medals was still alive, though only by mere fractions of a second, saved by the unforgettably lion-hearted performance of his teammates on the United States' 4x100-meter relay team, anchored by Jason Lezak, who made the water boil with his world record effort.

Put these men's names down alongside astronaut crews and hockey teams for giving Americans the sweet glow of victory: Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak. Put them down as the most electric champions at these Games so far, and a collective lesson in the pleasure than can result in giving your all for someone else. "We were a team," Lezak said. "It had nothing to do with individuals."

The swimming pool was a caldron superheated by the rivalry between the Americans, the French and the Australians, who lap by lap seared the water with world record splits. But it was 32-year-old Lezak, who hit the water trailing Frenchman Alain Bernard by half a body length -- 0.59 seconds -- who drove Americans to victory and into an emotional frenzy over the final 100 meters. He still trailed with 25 meters to go. Down the final stretch, it seemed over. There just wasn't enough pool left for Lezak to catch Bernard.

But Lezak flailed until he seemed to create a great storm surge of a wave heading toward that wall. And when he hit it, the world record had been lower by almost four seconds with a time of 3 minutes 8.24 seconds, and the United States had its first, and perhaps greatest, heroes of these Summer Games. Lezak's was the fastest anchor leg in this event ever, by almost a second, and "a perfect finish," Phelps said.

Phelps may be the greatest individual swimmer in history, but his plan for an unprecedented eight gold medals has always depended on the efforts of others; the impression that he is alone in the pool is misleading. Scores of people are involved, from Coach Bob Bowman to his family. But never was he more reliant on others than in this event, which the Americans had not won since 1996; Phelps was just a cog in the Olympic wheel. A big cog, but still a cog. The leadoff swimmer, he then had to stand and watch as Weber-Gale, Jones and finally Lezak swam their legs. It was a curious thing to see the most beautifully controlled swimmer in the Olympics out of control, his fate in the hands of others. As Jones, the third leg, climbed out of the pool, it appeared Phelps's quest for eight golds might be over almost before it began. "God, I hope that was fast enough," Jones thought.

If there was a favorite coming into the race, it was the blazing French team that had swum the fastest time in the world earlier in the season. "It's going to be a very tough race, very competitive," Bowman predicted. "Who was the fastest time in the world this year? Not us." Rumors circulated that the French were so sure of themselves they were threatening to "'smash" the Americans in the final.

But the preliminaries on Sunday night were a harbinger of the battle that was to come. The four members of the U.S. "'B" team went into the prelim determined to prove their worth, and with the understanding that a fast leg could win one of them a position on the roster with Phelps in the final. They logged a world record time of 3.12.23, thanks in part to a strong leg by Jones.

But U.S. Coach Eddie Reese knew that the final would be even faster -- neither the French nor the Americans had even put their best swimmers in the pool for the prelims. Reese predicted that the winner would have to better the world record by at least three seconds. "It's gonna get hot," Reese said.

In fact, it may have been the greatest swimming relay ever -- and it provoked unprecedented fire from the normally phlegmatic Phelps. In the last two days he has experienced two of the most demanding yet rewarding races he is likely to have in his career, and, interestingly, his most emotional response came in the event in which he wasn't even the hero. On Sunday morning he set a stunning world record in the 400 individual medley, the most taxing of all races. That feat made his eyes well, but his response in the relay was a blast of pure feeling. Some of it may have been sheer unburdening; Phelps has swum six times in four days between heats and finals. After winning the 400 IM, he came back on Sunday night and swam a prelim in the 200 freestyle, and on Monday morning had to return to the pool deck for a 200 semifinal in which he finished third, saving his energy for the starter's block in the relay.

Phelps swam a strong first leg but it wasn't quite fast enough: Eamon Sullivan of Australia set a world record pace, and the race was on. Phelps could only watch, bent double and screaming from his core as his teammates carried him the rest of the way to his second gold. "The three of us here, we can't even express how excited we are to be a part of this team," Lezak said. "We all just came together, that's how we were able to go so fast."

As Lezak made up the last bit of ground, Weber-Gale bent over and pounded on the block, screaming profanities, and Jones leaped into the air so exuberantly, he almost fell back in the pool. As Lezak touched the wall, his heart rose in him. "I definitely brought it back strong," he said. "I had more adrenalin going than I ever had in my life."

The rest was inarticulate screaming. "I don't remember a word any of us had to say," Lezak says.

One word didn't need expressing: the thank you that Phelps undoubtedly felt.

"It's not needed," Weber-Gale said.

"I think Michael knows he was just a part of it, and we were part of it," Lezak said.

Weber-Gale glanced at the medal on his chest and held it up. "We won one of these too," he said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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