It was, undeniably, the greatest swimming relay leg of all time and surely one of the best in-race comebacks the sport has ever seen.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Team USA’s men’s 4×100-meter relay squad downed their trash-talking French rivals to deliver what seemed like an impossible victory late in the race and helped Michael Phelps claim one of his eight gold medals that summer. It wasn’t the only race that summer Phelps almost lost in his quest to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds in a single Games, but because it was a relay, the finish was entirely out of his control.
On August 11, 2008 at China’s famous Water Cube, Jason Lezak had the most incredible swim of his career, and it’s one the swimming world will never forget.
“That one race made my career and kept me swimming for another four years, and I’m still able to do swimming things because of that,” Lezak told For The Win in 2019.
So without the 2020 Olympics happening in Tokyo this summer — the closing ceremony would have been Sunday — we’re looking back at this inconceivable moment in swimming history.
Then 32 years old, Lezak was the oldest swimmer on the U.S. men’s team, of which he was also the captain, and was anchoring the sprint relay. That meant he’d be going against France’s Alain Bernard for the final 100 meters — the same Alain Bernard who said:
“The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”
Phelps led off the relay, did his job and gave Team USA a .40-second lead over the French while breaking the 100-meter freestyle American record at 47.51 seconds.
Then Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones dove in for the next two legs. But by the time Jones hit the wall for his exchange with Lezak, the French had a solid lead that everyone expected Bernard would increase. And he did.
Going into that moment, Lezak was just worried about leaving the block a tad early and getting disqualified. Via NBC Sports’ 2018 piece celebrating the anniversary of the relay:
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“Emotions going all over the place,” Lezak said. “I was so anxious to try to catch [Bernard] I actually thought in my head that I left [the starting block] early and I would get DQed. I believe my reaction time was .03, which was really close. I’m sure all the coaches were freaking out.”
It was actually .04, second-best reaction of the 24 relay exchanges among the eight nations. Lezak avoided disqualification by eight hundredths of a second.
“Swimming down the first length [of the pool], trying to get all my thoughts out of my head,” Lezak continued. “As I did that, Bernard was on my left, and I breathed to my right. Never once did I look over to see where he was. I got to the 50, flipped and pushed off, and had another thought. Oh no, this guy increased his lead on me.”
By the time they turned at the 50-meter mark, Bernard’s lead over Lezak was almost a full body length. It was remarkably unlikely that a 32-year-old veteran swimmer would be able to make up so much ground in one length, and against the former 100-meter world holder no less.
Even with 25 meters to go, although Lezak was catching up, he was still down about half a body length. There was absolutely no way he was going to pass Bernard for the win, right?
Well, Lezak out-touched Bernard by .08 seconds and made history in more ways than one. His split was 46.06 — the fastest split of all time, per NBC Sports — as Team USA took the still-standing world record with a time of 3:08.24. It was Phelps’ second gold medal in his historic eight-gold Games.
And no matter how many times we watch it, fully aware of the result, there will always be chills.
Here’s the full race video:
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