You had to see it to believe it.
Coming into the 4x100 men's freestyle relay on Monday morning in Beijing, France's Alain Bernard was the world record holder in the men's 100-meter freestyle. His time of 47.50 seconds was the best this year. That fell on the first leg of the race.
Phelps is not the best freestyle swimmer on the US team. However, he did set the American record, swimming the first leg in 47.51 seconds, close behind Australia's Eamon Sullivan, whose 47.24 mark bested Alain Bernard.
Garrett Weber-Gale actually took the lead for the US during the second leg, besting Phelps' time with a 47.02, and bringing the Americans a 0.43 second lead at the halfway point.
Cullen Jones had the slowest of the four legs, which on any other day would've been one of the best times an American has had in the 100 free, with a 47.65. However, Frederic Bousquet of France sped through his leg at 46.63 passing the baton to world record holder Alain Bernard with a .59 lead and 100 meters to go.
Jason Lezak, the 32-year-old veteran of the relay team, had the daunting task of trying to chase down Bernard. For the first 50 meters, Bernard extended his lead and was up by .82 seconds after the final turn.
Somehow, Lezak in the last 20 meters came from half a body length behind Bernard to touch the wall 0.08 seconds in front of the Frenchman. Bernard's 100 leg was an excellent 46.73, but had the slowest 50 stretch of any of the eight French splits at 25.46.
Lezak's 46.06 final leg would have shattered the world record for the 100-meter freestyle, but still let the Americans break the previous world record (3:12.23) by a full four seconds (3:08.24) from the mark they set in the preliminaries just 15 hours earlier without Phelps.
One look at the results from the finals tells you that the Americans needed every bit of effort counted toward breaking the world record and getting the gold. The French were the favorites in this event, and the top five countries broke the previous world record.
Phelps may turn out to be the story of these Olympics, but he was overshadowed by Jason Lezak tonight. In his third Olympics, Lezak came to Beijing as an oddity—not just because he's over thirty in a sport that is dominated by college age athletes, but also because he's self-coached.
I suggest to anyone who hasn't seen the race to watch it or, at the very least, to see the final 50 meters. As a spectator, I thought there was no way Lezak was going to catch Bernard with that big a gap to bridge with under 25 meters to go.
The stories don't stop there. The middle leg swimmers Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones were needed just as much for the US to hold off the French.
Weber-Gale gave the Americans the lead halfway into the race. This was his first Olympics, not to mention his first race of the Games.
Cullen Jones may have had the slowest split, but not by much behind Phelps. He was the only member to swim in both the preliminaries and in the finals, performing well enough to help his team break the world record on consecutive days. He is also just the second African-American to win a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics—a historical note that should not be overlooked or forgotten, but most definitely applauded.
For one (perhaps) final time, the word ageless accurately describes the oldest member of the US Swim Team. Jason Lezak accomplished an amazing feat tonight, and in doing so made Michael Phelps his biggest fan, no small feat in and of itself.