BEIJING - 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.
That's exactly what happened today 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-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.
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. 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. The crowd inside the 11,000-seat Water Cube roared with appreciation.
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 Britain's Rebecca Adlington out-touched her by seven-hundredths of a second.
"She beat me to wall, but I'm proud of myself because I swam a smart race," Hoff said.
The Americans' relay victory was all the more sweet considering the way France declared itself the favorite before the Olympics. The Frenchmen weren't shy about repeating it either. In a news conference before the start of the Games, Bernard 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 was saying some stuff, talking a little bit of trash," Phelps said. "It fired me up more than anything else. I told Garrett, 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 Athens 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 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 has 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, touching in 47.51 seconds, which is a personal best for him. Weber-Gale went even faster, going 47.02 and moving the Americans into second place.
It looked like the American's chances at gold had slipped away when Weber-Gale passed off to Jones, who went 47.65, but Lezak dove in the pool .04 seconds after Jones touched the wall, a remarkable start considering anything under .03 results in a disqualification.
When Lezak touched the wall, Bernard hung his head, and the U.S. team kicked off its celebration.
"That was awesome," Phelps said.
What's Next for Phelps
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.