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)

"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.