Only 25 meters to go, half the length of the pool. Every stroke brought Lezak a little closer, a little closer, a little closer, his body seemingly carried along by the Frenchman's massive wake. The two lunged for the wall together. When the result flashed on the board, Phelps was still on course for his record eight gold medals.
Lezak, the oldest man on the U.S. swimming team, pulled off one of the great comebacks in Olympic history Monday morning, hitting the wall just ahead of Bernard in the 400 freestyle relay, a race so fast it actually erased two world records.
Few sporting events live up to the hype - this one exceeded it. The 32-year-old Lezak was nearly a body length behind Bernard as they made the final turn, but the American hugged the lane rope and stunningly overtook him on the very last stroke.
"This has been happening my whole career," Lezak said. "People have gotten on my lane line and sucked off of me, so I figured this is the one opportunity in my whole career to do that."
Watching on deck, Phelps let out a resounding "Yeaaaaaah!" and thrust both arms toward the roof of the Water Cube. His quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals had survived what will likely be its toughest test - and almost certainly its most thrilling.
The Americans shattered the world record set by their "B" team the previous evening in the preliminaries, touching with a time of 3 minute, 8.24 seconds - nearly 4 full seconds below the 15-hour-old mark of 3:12.23.
The Americans won the relay at seven straight Olympics, but watched the Australians and South Africans take gold at the last two games.
"You could tell I was pretty excited," Phelps said. "I lost my voice and I was definitely pretty emotional out there."
Bernard was the world record holder in the 100, but he surrendered that mark as well. Australia's Eamon Sullivan broke the individual record by swimming the leadoff leg in 47.24 - ahead of Bernard's mark of 47.50.
The French star was extremely confident about his team's chances heading into the big showdown. "The Americans? We're going to smash them," Bernard said. "That's what we came here for.
"If the relay goes according to plans, than we'll be on a roll."
Only Bernard didn't count on Lezak and the Americans spoiling those plans.
Oh, by the way, Phelps set an American record leading off, 47.51. But it was Lezak's anchor that everyone will remember. He got down and back in a staggering 46.06, the fastest relay leg in history though it doesn't count as an official record.
"A fingertip did the victory," said Amaury Leveaux, one of the French swimmers. "It is nothing."
Lezak looked at the scoreboard, then leaped out of the water with an emphatic fist pump.
"I knew I was going to have to swim out of my mind," Lezak said. "Still right now, I'm in disbelief."
Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones also did their parts on the middle legs of the relay, overcoming the enormous pressure of making sure they didn't mess up Phelps' attempt to take down the Holy Grail of Olympic records. Jones was the only holdover from the team that swam in the prelims.
Lezak should get a share of that $1 million bonus that Phelps has been promised if he goes on to beat Spitz's mark.
"I never lost hope," said Lezak, who trains alone but has been a longtime stalwart on the relay team. "I don't know how I was able to take it back that fast, because I've never been able to come anywhere near that for the last 50."
"Alain is wounded. When you are the last swimmer in a relay and that you have the opportunity to bring a title of this importance to your country, you don't get out of this unhurt," said Claude Fauquet, France's team director. "But I don't think that Alain lost the race. It's Lezak who won it." The French were second in 3:08.32 - eight one-hundredths of a second behind. Australia took the bronze in 3:09.91. In fact, the top five all went below the record set Sunday.
"I felt I was in the lead," Bernard said. "I knew I had to accelerate, but it got harder."
The Americans also were on the losing end of a last-lap comeback.
Katie Hoff was again denied a gold medal when Rebecca Adlington of Britain rallied over the final 50 meters to overtake the 19-year-old, who had settled for a bronze the previous day in the 400 individual medley.
Adlington won in 4:03.22, while Hoff took the silver in 4:03.29. Adlington's teammate Joanne Jackson earned the bronze in 4:03.52. Defending champion Laure Manaudou finished last in the eight-woman final."I saw Katie and thought, 'Let's just try to catch her,"' Adlington said. "That's what I did." Hoff still has three more individual events, plus a relay.
"I was a little disappointed I was so close," she said. "But I got a bronze yesterday and a silver this morning. If I keep climbing at this pace, I'll be happy."
President Bush was back at the Water Cube for the second day in a row, with wife Laura on one side, daughter Barbara on the other. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife were sitting in front of them, and Bill Gates was right behind.
Clearly, the swimming record book will need some heavy revisions by the time the Beijing Olympics are over. Two more world marks fell Monday morning when Kosuke Kitajima of Japan finished off American Brendan Hansen's hopes of an individual medal, winning the 100 breaststroke in 58.91. Kitajima pounded the water defiantly and let out a scream after breaking Hansen's 2-year-old record of 59.13. Hansen was left without a medal, fading to fourth behind silver medalist Alexander Dale Oen of Norway and Hugues Duboscq of France, who took bronze.
Kirsty Coventry didn't even bother waiting until a final to set a record in the 100 backstroke. The Zimbabwean won her semifinal heat in 58.77, taking down Natalie Coughlin's mark of 58.97 set at the U.S. trials last month. They'll go head to head in Tuesday morning's final. Coughlin won her heat in 59.43 with a nice, comfortable swim.
Seven world records have been set through the first 2 1/2 days at the Water Cube.
Phelps had another race to care of, moving on to the final of the 200 free with the fourth-fastest time of the semis. Trying to save as much energy as possible for the leadoff leg of the relay, the American touched in 1:46.28 to finish behind teammate Peter Vanderkaay (1:45.76) and South Korea's Park Tae-hwan (1:45.99). Jean Basson of South Africa also went faster in the other heat, winning in 1:46.13. While Hansen still has a swim left in the medley relay, he'll go down as one of the major disappointments of the American team. A one-time world record holder in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, he didn't even qualify for the Olympics in the longer race.
Putting all his hopes of beating Kitajima in the 100, he wasn't close to the Japanese star, finishing 0.66 seconds behind. "I've just had a really off year, on a really important year," Hansen said. "I just feel like that's not the last you're going to see of me. I'm going to bring it back and I won't be done until I at least have a legitimate shot at those world records again." Hansen swam over to Kitajima's lane to congratulate the winner. "That's a hell of a swim, and he is a true champion," he said. Coventry put down quite a challenge to Coughlin. Then again, Coughlin has been known to rise to the challenge - when Hayley McGregory broke her world record in the prelims at the U.S. trials, Coughlin came back in the very next heat to take it back. Now, Coventry has it, and Coughlin can't be too happy about that. "It's going to be a tight final," Coventry said. "Natalie's just so good at racing and planning out her races, so I just expect nothing but fast, fast swimming tomorrow morning." Coughlin will be side-by-side with Coventry in the final.
"It went very well," she said. "It's exactly where I wanted to be going into the finals. I'm happy with that. I just need to recover and focus on my final." Libby Trickett of Australia just missed another world record in the women's 100 butterfly, winning gold with a time of 56.73. American Christine Magnuson claimed the silver (57.10) and another Aussie, Jess Schipper, took the bronze (57.25).
Information from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.
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