Saving best for last

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - That the best relay swimmer of a generation should go it mostly alone on a daily basis has almost an old-school feel.

No uber-controlling coach on the deck barking out orders, and certainly no one telling him what he can and can't do out of the pool. If Jason Lezak needed someone to time his practices at home in Irvine, Calif., he would have his wife do it, at least before she recently started her job as an emergency room nurse in Anaheim.

Jason Lezak and high maintenance won't be found in the same sentence.

Which is why Lezak, at 32 the oldest man on the United States swim team and one of three captains, might have been the perfect swimmer to save the USA's floundering 400-meter freestyle relay, and in effect, Michael Phelps' chances at eight gold medals.

He might train alone, but he is a team guy through and through, a deep lover of team sports, especially the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant.

"I'm part of a team, and today was no different," Lezak said yesterday, hoarse after the race. "I got with the guys and said, 'We're not a four by 100 team. We're all one.' "

Lezak had the final word, though, hunting down then-world-record holder Alain Bernard of France in the anchor leg, slashing through the water and chipping away at Bernard's lead in the final 50 before finally winning it with the touch at the wall.

Expect to see his leg, the fastest 100 relay split ever (46.06 seconds), for decades to come in sports highlight films. The U.S. broke the world record by a big margin, going 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds. The old one - 3:12.23 - didn't even last a day, having been set by the Americans in the preliminaries Sunday night.

"I was telling my wife, 'This is the second-best day of my life, next to my wedding,' " Lezak said.

He sounded like a giddy kid, having watched the preliminary sessions at the Water Cube with U.S. basketball players Jason Kidd and LeBron James. "I talked to Jason Kidd the whole time," Lezak said. "It was an unreal experience. Kobe's not here ... of all people, not here."

It's a good guess that Lezak will get to meet Bryant by the end of the Olympics, now that Kidd is on the case.

Dream Team? How about Dream Relay? "That's the kind of anchor you dream of," U.S. men's swim coach Eddie Reese said. "It shows what you can do when you don't think about it, you just go. 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."

* Notes : In the semifinals of the women's 200 free, Towson's Katie Hoff advanced with the second-fastest time of 1:57.01. Hoff, 19, returned to post the third-fastest time in the semifinals of the 200 individual medley, trailing Coventry (2:09.53) and Australia's Stephanie Rice (2:10.58) in 2:10.90. ... Aaron Peirsol has won the men's 100 backstroke, defending his title with a world-record time and extending the United States' dominance of the event. Peirsol touched in 52.54 seconds, lowering his old mark of 52.89 set at last month's U.S. trials. ... In the women's 100 backstroke, American Natalie Coughlin became the first woman to defend her title in the event. Coughlin finished in 58.96 seconds. World-record-holder Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe earned the silver in 59.19. American Margaret Hoelzer took the bronze in 59.34.

Lisa Dillman writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire reports contributed to this article.

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