Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals remains alive and well after the U.S. men out-touched the French in a down-to-the-wire relay on August 11. It was the U.S.' shakiest event, given that the French squad boasts world record holder Alain Bernard, but Athens 2004 veteran Jason Lezak managed to beat Bernard to the wall in the last 100m by .08 of a second. The time set a new world record, dropping the previous one, set just the night before in the preliminary heat by the U.S., by nearly four seconds.
But for the world-wide media covering Phelps' chase to break Mark Spitz's 1972 Munich record of seven gold medals in a single Games, that means another day at the Water Cube in Athens, the waiting was over by the second day, when the U.S. men came in third in the 4x100m relay behind South Africa and the Netherlands.
It was Athens, in fact, that was on Lezak's mind as he made the turn into the final. "I'm not going to lie, but when I flipped and saw how far ahead [Bernard] was, and he's the world record holder, the thought caught my mind for a split second of: 'There's no way.' But I changed that, and said, 'This is ridiculous. This is the Olympics. I'm here for the United States of America, and I don't care how bad it hurts. So I got supercharged and took it from there."
Lezak's 100m leg of 46.06 seconds was the fastest among all 32 legs in the race, and while Bernard swam a faster first 50m, Lezak, who also picked up the anchor leg for the U.S. in the last two Olympics, caught up in stunning fashion and motored to the wall. Going into Lezak's 100m, the French were .59 second ahead. It might have helped, too, that Lezak was able to see Bernard all the way down the last lap. Lezak breathes on his right side, and there's nothing like seeing exactly where your opponent is to get your stroke flying. "When you put a world record holder in the end of a relay, and go in behind them, the chance of you beating them is slim to none," said U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese. "That was amazingly fast."
The victory is sweet for the U.S. team and for Phelps. "We haven't won that relay in the last 20 years," said Reese. "This was a tough one to win, but those are always the best ones to win." For Phelps, who swam the opening leg, it means his gold medal count now stands at two, a fact that helps explain his almost primal roar when Lezak finally came to the wall. And things may get even easier: in his remaining events, Phelps is either the world record holder or owns the fastest time this year. His closest challenges may come in the 200m freestyle, from U.S. teammate Peter Vanderkaay and South Korean Taehwan Park (who has already collected a gold in Beijing in the 400m freestyle), and in the 200m individual medley, from teammate Ryan Lochte, who came only 0.18 seconds behind Phelps at the Olympic Trials. "He is great, and we in China are interested in knowing whether Phelps can make [winning eight gold medals]," said Xuezhu Wen, a spectator from Beijing. "I'm not sure [if he can], but I wish all the best to him." After the relay performance, Phelps' American fans were more optimistic. "I think he can probably pull it off," said Ethan Paulson of San Diego. "He got one more today." Now he just needs to do it six more times.