Shouts from the Stands: Relive The Legendary 800 Free Relay from Athens

by SwimSwam Contributors 7

June 05th, 2019 Opinion

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Pat Pema, a swimmer at Emory University. 

Upsets have always been a blast to watch no matter what sport they occur in. Watching leads erased and world records broken always makes for an exciting time, but if they’re done by a performer that no one expects, those races become legendary. When these unexpected races occur at high level meets like the Olympics and World Championships, they dazzle spectators and cause the names of the underdogs and the original favorites to be cemented in history.

The 400 free relay from Beijing with Jason Lezak’s incredible 46.06 relay split and Michael Phelps’ legendary 100 fly from 2009 against Milorad Cavic come to mind for most when discussing upsets. Many swim fans will remember the final leg of the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay from the 2004 Athens Olympics. In an incredibly tight finish, this fantastic race saw American Klete Keller hold off Ian “The Thorpedo” Thorpe during the final leg of the just over 7-minute long race. Shocking the Australian team and the world, Klete Keller and his teammates set a new American record and gained recompense for the Australians’ victory in 2004.

On paper, the Aussies should’ve won the race. With a team full of talent and eager to repeat their victory from 2000, they were any smart better’s wager to win. Their team consisted of four swimming juggernauts: Grant Hackett, a renowned distance specialist with multiple World Championship and Olympic gold medals under his belt; Michael Klim, mid-distance specialist and former 100 fly world record holder; Nicholas Sprenger, up-and-coming middle distance swimmer and cousin of top-tier breastroker Christian Sprenger; and, of course, Ian Thorpe, the multiple-time world record holder and world and Olympic champion who was widely known as the greatest swimmer in the world.

Going into the race, the Australian team was the favorite due to its ringer, the Thorpedo. But the U.S. was determined to recapture the title in what was arguably the country’s best relay. The stakes were high and everyone watching was on the edge of their seats. Even as the start buzzer went off, fans waited eagerly for what was assuredly going to be a great race.

Due to a lackluster start by Grant Hackett, the U.S. team took off to a light lead. During the second and third legs, young but talented swimmers Ryan Lochte and Peter Vankerkaay held on to the U.S.’s lead, but any swim fan knows that a relay’s outcome comes down to its anchor. For the Aussies, Ian Thorpe held the honor, and for the United States, Klete Keller solemnly waited for Peter Vanderkaay’s hand to touch the wall. Going into the final leg, Klete Keller was given a roughly 1.5 second lead over the Thorpedo. As the Olympic champion in the 200 free during those games, everyone knew that Thorpe had the skill to win the race, and even the always-optimistic USA fan Rowdy Gaines didn’t have his usual confidence that the U.S. would win. After the first 50 of the final leg, Thorpe had pulled nearly even with Keller, erasing the 1.5 second lead.

A student-athlete at USC, Klete Keller was best known for his signature event, the 400m, in which he held the American record. A talented distance swimmer, Keller had experience on previous Olympic teams and held medals from world championships in the past. However, no one expected him to give challenge to the greatest swimmer in the world.

The whole world watched as they continued to battle. Everyone expected Thorpe to advance even farther, but after 100 meters Keller was still ahead. Some, including Gaines, knew that Keller was a 400m swimmer at heart, and would have a good back half, but this was the Thorpedo he was up against. The spectators and both relay teams stood shocked as they flipped for the final 50 with Keller maintaining a slight lead. Coming down to the last few meters, the stands and the pool deck were wild with cheer. As they touched and the scoreboard registered the USA team’s time as .13 faster than the Australians, everyone knew that Klete Keller had done the impossible in holding off the world’s greatest swimmer. Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Peter Vanderkaay celebrated in disbelief and triumph as they retook their title in the U.S.’ signature event.

With the fastest split by an American ever on the 800 free relay, Klete Keller proved that swimming is largely a sport of willpower and heart. Diving in for his last leg, he knew what needed to be done, and made it happen despite having the knowledge of being up against Ian Thorpe. He didn’t let the fear get to him, and the circumstances he was in gave him strength. During his swim, he dug deep and did the impossible. He demonstrated that underdogs always have a fighting chance, and that he had what it took to anchor one of the most highly contested and anticipated relays in the Olympics.

About Pat Pema

My name is Pat Pema, and I swim for Emory University in Atlanta. At Emory, I major in Neuroscience and one day hope to go to Medical School.  I’ve been swimming all my life, and I’m very passionate about the sport in all its aspects. Watching Team USA compete at the Olympics and World Championships is one of my favorite hobbies, and I immensely enjoy watching and competing in high level racing.

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Brian Coady
3 years ago

The best article I’ve ever read on swimswarm!! Keep up the good writing

3 years ago

This was the 2000 4 x 100 free relay in reverse. In both cases, the anchor swimmer for the losing team hurried to catch up on his opponent, forgetting to swim “his own race”, while the anchor man for the winning team swam out of his skin and capitalized on his initial advantage. In other words, Keller did to Thorpe exactly what Thorpe had done to Gay Hall, Jr, 4 years earlier.

3 years ago

At the time this was an upset, but Phelps, Lochte, PVK, Keller all did monster aerobic work and went on to dominate US and world mid distance events, the shock factor has probably diminished over time, but early 2000’s Thorpe, Hacket, Klim we’re superstars of world swimming at the time.

Coach ID
Reply to  Skoorbnagol
3 years ago

They were pretty strong in the late 90s as well. Didn’t Klim win quite a few medals at worlds in 97?

Coach ID
3 years ago

This narrative has a lot of stuff missing.

1. Phelps and Hackett each let off about 1.0-1.5 seconds slower than their individual 200 free times.

2. Michael Klim won a inter-team swim-off to earn a spot on this relay (if I recall correctly from Rowdy’s commentary).

3. Australia hadn’t lost this relay internationally in quite some time. It was similar to when AUS won gold over USA in the 4×100 in Sydney.

4. Maybe the moral of the story- don’t over swim your first 50 in the 4×200 relay!! If you watched the race or have seen the tape, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Nick Baker
Reply to  Coach ID
3 years ago

Thorpe took a lot of criticism for this relay (including from me) but ironically it was only him and Keller who performed on the day. It wasn’t just Hackett and Phelps that tanked, it was also every other member on both teams who swam slower than their heat or individual swims.

But it was one gold that Thorpe surely would have won if he was actually at his best and not been skipping training. He would have had that last 50 in him.

Reply to  Nick Baker
3 years ago

Skipping training ?