“I just don’t think they can do it, Dan.”
Those were the words said by Rowdy Gaines as Jason Lezak dove in trailing France’s Alain Bernard by just under six-tenths of a second (0.59) for the anchor leg of the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics. And who could blame him?
As acknowledged by Gaines on the NBC broadcast prior to the race, on paper, France had the better team. Amaury Leveaux had broken the individual 100 free Olympic Record leading off in the prelims, Fabien Gilot had been sub-48 that year, and Frederick Bousquet had unleashed the fastest relay split in history in the heats in 46.63.
Bookending the team was Bernard, who had set the individual world record less than five months prior in 47.50. While Lezak had set a new American Record at the U.S. Olympic Trials, just shy of Bernard’s mark in 47.58, making up that 0.59 seemed like a herculean task. And it was.
Michael Phelps, whose goal of winning eight gold medals at the Games (requiring an American win to keep that hope alive) added another layer to the narrative, broke Lezak’s AR opening up in 47.51, second to Aussie Eamon Sullivan who broke Bernard’s world record in 47.24. Leveaux was four-tenths back of Phelps in 47.91.
Garrett Weber-Gale, who was making his Olympic debut swimming second, was nine-tenths under his Trials-winning time in 47.02 to slightly extend the U.S. lead as Gilot split 47.05 to put France second.
Everything changed on the third leg, as Bousquet matched his prelim leg in 46.63 to out-split Cullen Jones (47.65) by a full second, handing Bernard that 0.59 lead coming into the anchor.
The U.S. hadn’t won this relay at the Olympics since 1996, having lost an epic showdown with Australia in 2000 and then got blown out of the water by the South Africans in 2004. So, the team’s fire was already pretty lit. Adding fuel to that fire? Bernard claiming the French would “smash” the Americans. There was a lot at stake here as the six foot five Frenchman dove in with Lezak hot on his tail.
Bernard absolutely torched the opening 50, splitting 21.27 to the feet (which was actually under the 50 free individual world record of 21.28 at the time) to extend his lead over the Americans to 0.82 seconds. Lezak, too, was out like a mad man in 21.50.
“The United States trying to hang on to second, they should get the silver medal,” Gaines’ play-by-play partner Dan Hicks said as the two broke out onto their second 50. “Australia is in bronze territory right now… but Lezak is closing a little bit, on Bernard! Could the veteran chase him down, and pull off a shocker here?”
Bernard, clearly starting to lose stroke efficiency as he tightened up, begins swimming on the left side of his lane. Lezak jumped on his wave, swimming as far right as he could, and began to run down France.
It was with about 15 meters left that Lezak turned on the nitrous.
“Bernard is losing some ground, here comes Lezak, unbelievable at the end, he’s done it! The U.S. has done it!” said Hicks.
“He did it! He did it!” adds Gaines.
It was arguably the most memorable swim since the turn of the century. Lezak’s final split? 46.06, coming home in a blazing 24.56. Bernard still produced one of the fastest legs the sport has ever seen in 46.73, but it wasn’t quite enough, as Lezak touched to give the U.S. a final time of 3:08.24 to France’s 3:08.32.
Lezak went on to add another gold in the medley relay and an individual 100 free bronze in Beijing, while Phelps’ quest of winning eight gold medals at a single Games was successful, completed by Lezak on the anchor of that medley relay no less.
Over the last 12 years we have yet to see a 100 free relay split faster than Lezak’s, even through the 2009 super-suit era. At the 2019 World Championships, Duncan Scott came the closest, splitting 46.14 to give Great Britain an epic win in the men’s 4×100 medley relay.
Watch the anchor leg with NBC commentary, via City Of Manchester Swim Team on YouTube, below: