YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A teammate dives in to save Phelps in historic quest

August 11, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- Michael Phelps, half man, half chlorine, continued his quest to become the aqua king of the world.

Not unlike the Titanic, he ran into some unexpected trouble.

But with a 32-year-old teammate, Jason Lezak of Irvine, saving the day, the men's 400-meter freestyle relay went to the U.S. team in a neck-and-neck race against time and France, keeping alive Phelps' shot at breaking the all-time record for gold medals in a single Olympic Games.

How good was Lezak's last leg?

"You'd have to put it in the 'unbelievable' category," U.S. men's Coach Eddie Reese said after the race.

That's the word Phelps used as well.

"Unbelievable. Jason finished the race better than we could have asked for," Phelps said. "You could see I was pretty excited."


You could say that. Phelps let out a primal scream on the pool deck, seconds after Lezak's fingers touched the race's last wall.

It was a thrilling experience for him and for relay sidekicks Garrett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones.

It was every bit as thrilling for a guy who didn't get to swim, Matt Grevers.

Grevers had done a brilliant job for the team in the earlier rounds, even anchoring the Americans to a world record in one race.

But he was willing -- in fact, he was glad -- to yield his spot in the quartet for the gold-medal race. Grevers knew that he had to make room for Phelps.

Most of the crowd at the "Water Cube," the locals' name for their National Aquatic Center, came to see Phelps, who is going for eight golds here in a bid to make history and outdo the great Mark Spitz.

Phelps is not like a Kobe Bryant or a Rafael Nadal, someone who can take part in an Olympic Games and then return to a profitable life in his chosen sport. For a swimmer, this is as good as it gets.

He isn't going to capitalize on this with some Ice Capades-style world tour. He won't be offered a Hollywood role as Tarzan the way Johnny Weissmuller was or the role of comic-book hero Aquaman like the character on HBO's fictional "Entourage" series.

Nor will he be offered a handsome sum to shave a mustache off his handsome mug as Spitz once was, or to pose sans clothes the way Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard has done (again and again).

For the 23-year-old Phelps, this is his make-or-break week, his likely last chance to attain BOAT status -- Best of All Time.

But he needs help.

And in a truly heroic moment, Lezak came to the rescue for him.

Lezak leapt from the blocks knowing that the French were out in front. He had to go stroke for stroke with Alain Bernard, the anchorman for France who happens to hold the world record for the 100 freestyle.

Phelps had led off for the Americans, turning in a time of 47.51 and finishing his portion of the race in second place. (Australia was first at that point, France fourth.)

Weber-Gale came next and put his team in front, but Jones finished the third leg in the slowest time for the team (47.65) and in second place.

It was Jones whose spot Grevers could conceivably have filled if the coach had had a change of heart.

It was of no matter in the end. Lezak's blistering 46.06 last leg saved everybody's day.

Well, perhaps not France's.

"Are you talking to me?" Frederick Bousquet of the silver medalists asked, pointing to his face after the race. "Do you read an expression of disappointment? Come on, I'm vice-Olympic champion."

Boo hoo beaucoup.

Second place means one thing to some people and another thing to others.

Lezak said with 50 meters to go he actually thought "there's no way" he could catch the leader.

Then he talked himself into a personal-best, lightning-fast finishing kick that he described himself as unreal.

"It was a crazy thing to watch," his teammate Weber-Gale said.

"I knew that last 15 to 20 meters would be out of control. I was sitting there on the blocks saying the F word. And then Jason did what he did. I don't think anyone in the world could have done it better."

Including a certain guy who is going for eight golds.

Los Angeles Times Articles