Charles Hartley, a free-lance writer based in New Jersey, has written more than a thousand published sports articles. He earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Journalism. In addition, he was awarded his Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University where he majored in English and Communications.
Trash talking of historical proportions began a few days before the finals of the men’s 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
A member of the French team, six-foot-five-inch Alain Bernard and world record holder in the 100 freestyle, told the press: “We’re going to smash the Americans. That’s what we came here for.”
Bernard was barking.
He had some good for doing so. France had put together four of the fastest free-style relay sprinters in the world at just the right time to be ready to snatch the Gold Medal from the United States.
Collectively, their relay splits and times were faster than the Americans. This was going to be a bad scene for U.S. swimming. In one of the events for which they are most proud of winning Gold Medals for decades, they were going to get humbled by a faster team from France.
Worse, they were being taunted by that team. They were being belittled. They were being disrespected. This doesn’t happen much in international swimming, not the trash talking and especially not about Americans swimmers who have been, as a team, the best in the world consistently for many decades.
These were unchartered waters, the Americans as underdogs, which rarely happens in relay events at the Olympics. Countries may have one person, once in a while, who can swim faster than our faster American in an individual event. But it’s unlikely you have a group of four who can swim faster. Americans have more depth of swimming talent than any other country. It’s been this way since the sport began.
Entering the race, there was no reason to believe the United States would win or even had a chance. Soon before the race NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines said that no matter how many times he crunched the numbers, considering various possibly times posted by each swimmer, the answer to the math turned out equal France taking the Gold.
The Americans would place second. But in this event, second place is like finishing 92nd. In relays, especially for Americans, it’s either Gold or nothing. Silver Medals are considered losses.
Making the dread entering this race even more intense was that one member of the U.S. team, a pretty good swimmer named Michael Phelps, would be part of that losing team. He was on a roll winning Gold Medals in individual Olympic events, and there was worry that he may actually be in a race in which he did not win.
All of this hype, nervousness, and intrigue was going on before this race.
Everything was pointing to glory for France, the mouth-runners, and humiliation for the Americans, the quiet guys who didn’t respond – at least not publicly — to Bernard’s words.
As an American swimming fan, you got a sinking feeling. If there was no chance they would win, based on the expert analysis of Rowdy Gaines, we were going to watch and be disappointed. It was a virtual certainty.
Americans always hate losing and this was a classic case.
When Phelps led off the relay for the Americans, even as much of a championship as he was, there wasn’t much hope for Gold. He finished second in his heat and posted the fastest relay splits in American history, 47.51, but it was not going to matter. The back half of the French relay squad was wicked fast.
An American victory wasn’t going to happen.
Garrett-Weber Gale and Cullen Jones swam the second and third legs for the Americans. They left the American squad behind by a body length at the end of the third leg.
It was over. No Gold. Embarrassment. Losing to the French, who predicted they were going to whip them, was imminent and certain. Could anything in U.S. Olympic swimming be worse?
Bernard, all six feet five inches of him, dove in the pool. A second later U.S. anchor leg Jason Lezak hit the water.
It was over.
Gaines talked about how the Americans were going to get the Silver. He said there was just no way Lezak could catch Bernard. By the end of the first 50 meters, the Trash Talker had built on the lead.
It was a fait accompli.
France wins. Americans lose. World celebrates.
You could see these headlines all over TV screens and newspapers around the world.
Lezak kept fighting. What was going through his mind at that point? Clearly, he was feeling pain. Clearly, he knew he was behind. Clearly, his chances of catching the Trash Talker were minimal. What mental and physical torture he must have been feeling?
Mid-way through the second half of the race, he appeared to be gaining on Bernard. Not by much, just a little.
It kept happening at indiscernible lengths. But you could see it.
Could he do it? No way. We were being teased.
We all hate to be teased.
Fifty feet from the wall his gains were getting easier to see. Yes, he was gaining. But the wall was so close. Bernard would touch before Lezak could catch him. There just wasn’t enough time.
Nice race, valiant effort but sorry, you lost.
Lezak can’t come back and beat the world record holder in the 100 meter freestyle because he’s not the world record holder. In swimming, things like this hardly ever happen. Swimmers with the fastest times entering races almost always swim the fastest in their next races compared with the other swimmers. Times don’t lie.
Lezak kept coming.
Ten feet from the wall it looked like maybe, maybe, maybe he would touch the wall before the Trash-Talking Frenchman.
No way. This can’t be possible. Lezak is really fast, but he’s not that fast. He’s never swam 100 meters faster than Bernard. How could he do it now? Sure, he’s motivated to beat the Trash Talker and win Gold for Michael Phelps and his teammates, but wanting to win is different from winning.
But there he goes. They’re even ten feet from the wall. Still, even five feet from the wall, they’re even.
Will Lezak out-touch him? How could it? No way.Look at the board. What does it say?
Lezak nipped Bernard by 8 one hundreds of a second. The United States posted a time of 3 minutes and 8.24 seconds, shattering the all-time world record in this event by four seconds.
The four Americans exalted. Lezak jumped above the water and pumped his arm.
No doubt exhausted, no doubt amazed, no doubt a winner for the rest of his life, Lezak had forever placed himself among the greatest American heroes in the history of the Olympic Games.
Overcoming all the odds and the trash-talking, he found a way to swim the fastest 100 meter time ever, 46.06.
It was insane. It was improbable. It was the most riveting and amazing swimming race in the history of the sport.
It was France. It was the United States.
It was America at its most Beautiful.