By John Lohn
BEIJING, China, August 11. THIS sport has witnessed so many sensational duels over the years that it wouldn't be fair to call one better than the rest. Still, the men's 400 free relay certainly would be a strong candidate. Simply put, it was a race for the ages and included a finish that will be difficult to better.
For the past few months, much had been made about the impending showdown between the United States and France. While the U.S. owned the world record from the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships, the French had put together a squad that looked capable of extending the Americans' gold-less streak in the event to a third Olympiad.
Almost, but not quite.
Staring at a .59 deficit when he hit the water for the anchor leg, Jason Lezak delivered the best split in the event's history, a 46.06 that allowed him to track down Alain Bernard and give the U.S. the gold in a world-record time of 3:08.24. Heading into the final 50, Lezak still trailed Bernard by nearly a body length. But the veteran freestyler and relay stalwart continually cut into Bernard's lead and managed to reach the wall a nick in front. France went 3:08.32 and five teams broke the previous world record of 3:12.23. The Australians, with Eamon Sullivan's world-record leadoff of 47.24, were third in 3:09.91.
Michael Phelps and Amaury Leveaux opened the event for their countries, with Phelps going an American-record time of 47.51 to the 47.91 of the Frenchman. Garrett Weber-Gale followed for the U.S. in 47.02, slightly outsplitting Fabien Gilot and his 47.05. The French took the lead on the third leg when Fred Bousquet split 46.63 to the 47.65 of Cullen Jones. That left major work for Lezak, who handled his chore sensationally.
"Before the race we all new the way the French had swum in the prelims that when they added their best two guys, it was going to be tight race," Lezak said. "They had talked a lot about it, and we would just rather do it in the pool. They pulled that time off without their best two guys. I knew it was going to come down to the end, and I was hoping to be ahead, but I never lost hope. 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.
"I can't even explain it, it was unreal. I've been a part of the two teams at the last two Olympics that came out behind, and I think I wanted it more than anybody, not just for myself, but to show that we are the nation to be beat in that relay."
If Phelps can win the eight gold medals he's chasing, he'll obviously have a thank-you card or present waiting for Lezak.
After Sullivan led off his world-record time, the Aussies turned to Andrew Lauterstein, Ashley Callus and Matt Targett to complete their bronze-medal run. Italy finished fourth in 3:11.48 while Sweden was fifth in 3:11.92. Rounding out the field were Canada (3:12.26), South Africa (3:12.66) and Great Britain (3:12.87). Prior to this year, no Olympic 400 free relay had been faster than 3:13. All eight of the finalists turned the trick.