U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team

The U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team (from left, Garret Weber-Gale, Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones) celebrates after winning a gold medal and breaking the world record with a time of 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds. Lezak came from behind in the anchor leg, catching France's Alain Bernard to win by eight-hundredths of a second. In a news conference prior to the start of the Games, Bernard had said that France would "smash" the Americans. (Getty Images / August 11, 2008)

To win eight gold medals in a single Olympics, Michael Phelps not only needed to be at his personal peak for 10 days, he also needed his teammates to swim their best under intense pressure.

And that exactly what happened Monday at the Water Cube.

The U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team of Phelps, Cullen Jones, Garret Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak came from behind to win the gold medal, upsetting France, and the biggest hero of the day turned out to be Lezak, the American anchor and captain of the entire team.

Lezak trailed France's Alain Bernard -- who started the day as the world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle -- by half a body length when the two swimmers turned from the final wall. But Lezak slowly closed the gap, reeling in Bernard an inch at a time, and he out-touched the Frenchman by eight-hundredths of a second to win gold in a world-record time of 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds.

"When I flipped at the 50, and saw how far ahead he was, knowing he was the world record holder, for a split second a thought crossed my mind: There is no way," Lezak said. "But I said 'You know what? This is ridiculous. This is the Olympics and I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts.' Honestly, in like five seconds, I was thinking all these things. I just got like a super charge and just took it from there. It was unreal."

Lezak's closing leg (46.06) was the fastest relay split ever, and it kicked off a celebration by Phelps and the rest of the Americans that can best be described as four men going absolutely bonkers with joy.

Phelps, who won his second gold medal of these Olympics and is closing in on the record for most golds in history, threw his arms in the air, opened his mouth and screamed as loud as he possibly could. Weber-Gale bear-hugged Phelps from behind and Phelps shook his fists like a warrior king, bellowing in triumph. Jones leaped into the air, and worried he might fall into the pool. The crowd inside the 11,000-seat Water Cube roared with appreciation.

"That's what I'm talking about!" Phelps screamed. "That's what I'm talking about!"

Towson's Katie Hoff also had an impressive day, winning her second medal of the Olympics with a second-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle. She came incredibly close to winning gold, leading by a second coming off the final wall, but Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington out-touched her by seven-hundredths of a second.

"I gave it everything I had possibly, but they got me on the end. ... I feel like I should have got my hand on the wall first," Hoff said.

The Americans' relay victory was all the more sweet considering the way France declared itself the favorite prior to the Olympics. The Frenchmen weren't shy about repeating it either. In a news conference prior to the start of the Games, Bernard, who boasts a tattoo of a shark on his abdomen, was asked what he thought about his country's chances against the United States.

"The Americans?" Bernard said. "We will smash them."

Several of Bernard's teammates followed his lead, even going so far as to suggest that the Americans were scared of the French.

"This morning, Bob (Bowman) had said the French were saying some stuff, talking a little bit of trash," Phelps said. "It fired me up more than anything else. I told Garret, and he said 'You know what?' We're going to let our swimming do the talking."

The United States had never lost the 400-meter freestyle relay at an Olympics until 2000, when the Americans were beaten by Australia, and in 2004, the event also derailed Phelps' quest to win all his events when the United States came in third.

This time, it looked like the Americans were destined for silver, even with 50 meters left in the race. Lezak simply would not let it happen.

"His last 50 meters were absolutely incredible, and he had a perfect finish," Phelps said.

The relays have always been, in some respects, Phelps' favorite events. He has spent so much of his life with the focus solely on him, and he relishes the feeling of being just one part of a larger team. Normally stoic and reserved on the pool deck, he often looks like a chest-thumping NFL linebacker when he cheers on his teammates in relays.

He wanted this one so badly, he was willing to potentially put some personal glory aside. Earlier in the morning, Phelps did his best to conserve energy for the relay during the semifinals of the 200-meter freestyle, as he swam only the fourth-fastest time of all the qualifiers (1:46.28), nearly three seconds slower than his world-record time (1:43.86). That means, if he wins a gold medal, he'll do it swimming from lane 6, something he's never done before.

"I wanted to go 1:45, and without my messed-up finish, it would have been that," Phelps said. "It's fine. I just wanted to save as much energy as I could for the relay."

Phelps swam a strong opening leg, setting an American record by touching in 47.51 seconds. Weber-Gale went even faster, going 47.02 and moving the Americans into the lead. But it looked like the American's chances at gold had slipped away when Weber-Gale passed off to Jones, who went 47.65.

Lezak dove in the pool .04 seconds after Jones touched the wall, a remarkable start considering anything under .03 results in a disqualification.

"I said before the relay we were going out there to swim a 400, not a 4 x 100 relay," Lezak said. "We're a team. It had nothing to do with individuals out there."

When Lezak touched the wall and then saw the Americans' time, he pumped his fist and slapped the water. Bernard hung his head, stunned at what had just transpired, and the United States kicked off what might go down as the most exciting celebration of these Olympics.

"When you put the world-record holder on the end of a relay, and you go in behind him, the chance of you beating him is slim and none," United States men's coach Eddie Reese said. "'Unbelievable' is the world I would use. That's the biggest word I know."

When Lezak climbed out of the pool, the four swimmers extended their arms into a giant group hug. Phelps had tears in his eyes, and his voice was hoarse from yelling so passionately, but he needed just three words to sum up his feelings.

"That," Phelps said, "was awesome."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

What's Next for Phelps


TONIGHT
EVENT: 200-meter freestyle

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Phelps is the world record holder (1:43.86) and is nearly two seconds faster than the rest of the field. His closest competition, Pieter van den Hoogenband, dropped this event on the eve of the Games to focus on the 100-meter freestyle. This is the one individual event Phelps didn't win in Athens, so he'll be hungry to go fast and blow away the rest of the field. Phelps' training partner, Peter Vanderkaay, is the only swimmer with an outside shot at an upset.