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, but he also needed his teammates to swim their best under intense pressure.
That's exactly what happened Aug. 11 at the Water Cube. The U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team of Phelps, Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak came from behind to win the gold medal, upsetting France. The biggest hero of the day turned out to be Lezak, the American anchor.
Lezak trailed France's Alain Bernard, the world-record holder in the 100 freestyle, by half a body length when the two swimmers made the last turn. But Lezak slowly closed the gap, reeling in Bernard an inch at a time, and he out-touched the Frenchman by .08 of a second.
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 threw his arms into the air and screamed as loudly as he possibly could. Weber-Gale bearhugged Phelps from behind, and Phelps shook his fists like a warrior king.
The Americans' relay victory was all the sweeter considering the way France declared itself the favorite before the Olympics. Bernard was asked what he thought about his country's chances against the United States. "The Americans?" Bernard said. "We will smash them."
Phelps said, "It fired me up more than anything else."
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 part of a team. He turned in a strong opening leg of 47.51 seconds, a personal best for him. Then he cheered his teammates on like a chest-thumping NFL linebacker.
When Lezak touched the wall, Bernard hung his head, and the U.S. team began its celebration.
-- Kevin Van Valkenburg
400 free relay
Time: 3:08.24 (Phelps, Cullen Jones, Garrett Weber-Gale, Jason Lezak), WR
Previous world record: 3:12.23
Key to the victory: Lezak trailed France's Alain Bernard, the world-record holder in the 100-meter freestyle, by half a body length when the two swimmers made the final turn. But Lezak slowly narrowed the deficit and edged the Frenchman by .08 of a second.
Highlight: It might go down as one of the most thrilling Olympic swimming relay finishes in history, with Lezak's closing leg the fastest relay split ever (46.06).
Quote: "That was awesome." -- Phelps, on Lezak's final leg