My sister ran down the stairs and, upon seeing me, said, “What is wrong with you? I thought you were being murdered!” Writhing and shrieking on the floor, I could only point to the TV screen. Just seconds before, I believe I had witnessed the single greatest relay, if not all around, race in swimming history. For those of you who don’t enjoy the scent of chlorine on your skin, let me break it down for you.
France came in the heavy favorite despite the Americans taking the world record in the preliminaries. A day later, the French made waves saying that they were going “to smash them” meaning the Americans. Even retired, American gold medalist and former world record holder Rowdy Gaines said, “No matter how many times I break it down, I can only see the French winning.” It seemed like a silver effort for the usually golden team USA. And, to make matters worse, it was going to be the finale to a disappointing night for them anyway.
Brendan Hansen, a breastroker in the finest sense, ended his individual quest for Olympic gold with a fourth place finish in the 100 meter breastroke. Rumor has it, although he later said that he was not done with swimming, that that was his final individual Olympic race. It seemed setting his alarm clock to rival Kosuke Kitajima’s triumphant scream everyday was all for naught as Kitajima took the gold and Hansen didn’t even medal.
The so-called female version of Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff, took silver in the 400 meter freestyle. That would have normally been a fantastic result for the star-studded race if she hadn’t had a full body length lead on everyone going into the last 100.
Kirsty Coventry, of Zimbabwe, took down United States swimming’s poster child Natalie Coughlin’s world record in the semi-finals of the 100 backstroke. Hopefully Coughlin will be able to regain that record tomorrow but it still points to a disappointing night for the American swimmers.
And then to top it all off, the same downtrodden squad was supposed to lose a tough relay to come-out-of-nowhere France. For the record, any color medal that is not gold in his races will spoil Michael Phelps’ bid to beat Mark Spitz’s seven gold standard.
When Phelps jumped in as the leadoff in this relay, I only had one thought: get a lead. We need a least half a body length out of you because you’re possible our best hope. But he didn’t. He was just barely even with the Australian leader when they made the exchange. Now the rookie Benjamin Wildman-Tobriner was in the water, I could only pray that he could maintain the tie for first. When he finished, still slightly behind Australia, France made its move.
As the first black man ever on an American Olympic swimming team, Cullen Jones, struggled to keep up, Australia faded and France blew past the competition. The United Stateswas a strong second when American veteran Jason Lezak dove in but second was all it was. All I remember hearing was Rowdy Gaines saying “The French anchor split a 46.66 last time,” over and over again. Even with 10 meters to go, the French had half a body length on the Americans. I was already preparing myself for settling for second.
But then something miraculous happened to Jason Lezak. Something inside him surged and he began to catch up. Stroke for stroke, the two zoomed into the wall, too close to call. Then amongst my own and Rowdy Gaines’ screams, the USA flag flashed on screen with a 1 and a WR (world record, a time that beat the previous one by four seconds) next it. The United States beat the French by eight one hundredths of a second.
From Phelp’s giant yelp to Lezak’s fist pumping, I’ll never forget it. At 33, Lezak split an even 46.0, the fastest relay split in history. The two first time Olympians did their part to hang on. And the golden boy, well, he’s still golden. It wasn’t just the USthat put up fabulous race either. Not only did the medal winners break the previous world record but the fourth and fifth place finishers did too. It was a fantastic race coupled with all the dramatic storylines one could imagine: an underdog, a couple of rookies, a veteran’s last chance, a champion on a quest for greatness, a photofinish and above all a self-proclaimed villain. It’s right up there with Klete Keller holding off Ian Thorpe in Athens, the Phelps-Crocker 100 butterfly in Montreal and in Athens, Misty Hyman’s 200 fly in Sydney and a host of other great moments in the sport.
But perhaps the best thing about it is the knowledge that today’s only the second day of competition for swimming. If that was a preview of things to come, I might not have my voice next week.