- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

— Michael Phelps owes Jason Lezak a giant thank you for keeping his bid for eight gold medals alive.

Lezak made up a 0.59-second advantage over the final 50 meters of the 4x100 freestyle relay Monday morning (Sunday night EDT) to give the United States the victory by 0.08 seconds over favored France.

“It could have been over right then and there,” U.S. men’s coach Eddie Reese said of Phelps’ march toward breaking Mark Spitz’s record.

The top four finishers eclipsed the world record set by the United States in the preliminaries. The Americans’ winning time of 3:08.24 was nearly four seconds below the 15-hour old mark.

In a thrilling finish, Lezak had to catch 100 freestyle world record holder Alain Bernard. When Lezak started his leg, he trailed by .29 seconds. The deficit grew at the turn to .59 seconds.

“I’m not going to lie, when I flipped at the 50 and saw how far ahead he was, the thought for a split second was, There’s no way,’ ” Lezak said. “Then I changed. I thought to myself, That’s ridiculous. This is the Olympics, I’m here for the United States of America. Honestly, in five seconds, I was thinking all those things. I got a super charge and just took it from there. It was unreal.”

Said Reese: “When they put the world record holder on the end of a relay and you go in behind him, the chances of you beating him are slim to none. This has to be in the unbelievable category.”

Around the 25-meter mark, Lezak started to pick up ground and didn’t take the lead until he hit the wall, triggering a wild celebration on the deck by Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones.

Phelps is 2-for-2 this week and swims the 200 butterfly preliminaries Monday night (Beijing time).

“We were all fired up, and we came in here this morning and put four solid relays together,” he said. “Jason swam one of the fastest relay splits of all the time, and his last 50 meters were absolutely incredible. He had a perfect finish.”

The win was the Americans’ first in the event since 1996. Following seven straight U.S. wins, Australia and South Africa won the last two Olympics.

“Our 400 freestyle had been spanked around the last two Olympics,” Reese said. “This was the toughest one to win, and those are always the best ones to win.”

Phelps led off and swam a 23.31, suggesting he will be going out quickly in the 200 free final. The United States was in second after the first leg, but Weber-Gale’s 21.89 took the lead. The French dominated the third leg as Frederick Bousquet turned a 0.43-second deficit into a 0.29-second advantage.

“The dominating feeling is joy because we’re on the second step of the podium,” Bousquet said. “If someone would have asked us to sign a contract [guaranteeing silver] before, we would have signed it straight away.”

Lezak, 32, is the graybeard of the men’s team, making his third Olympic appearance. He was on the last two relay teams that were favorites and lost.

In a team meeting last week, Lezak said he told his mates, “It wasn’t about four guys swimming best times each; it was four guys making one relay really, really fast.”

Lezak had the perfect finish, but Towson’s Katie Hoff wasn’t so fortunate. In the 400 freestyle final, Hoff was swimming a great race until the final 15 to 20 meters. She led by 0.07 seconds after 250 meters, 0.91 seconds after 300 and made her final turn up by 1.08 seconds.

But just as Lezak would do in the next race, Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington made up more than a second-and-a-half over the final 50, beating Hoff by 0.07 seconds.

Hoff won the silver to go with the bronze she won in the 400 IM.

In other Tuesday morning races, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima broke American Brendan Hansen’s world record in the 100 butterfly with a winning time of 58.91 seconds. Hansen, who won silver in Athens, was fourth.

Christine Magnuson won silver in the 100 butterfly. Australia’s Libby Trickett won gold. Magnuson was ranked 12th in this event in 2007.

“I just came in with the attitude that anybody is beatable,” Magnuson said. “I did what I practiced.”

Natalie Coughlin and Margaret Hoelzer advanced to the 100 backstroke finals, but Coughlin lost her world record. Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry set the new mark at 58.77 seconds.

Peter Vanderkaay (first) and Phelps (fourth) qualified for the 200 freestyle finals Monday night U.S. time.

Matt Grevers (second) and Aaron Peirsol (fifth) moved on to the 100 backstroke finals.

In the 100 breaststroke, Rebecca Soni qualified second and Megan Jendrick seventh.



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