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Lezak's Record Lap Snags Gold No. 2 For Phelps

The U.S. Olympic swim team struck gold in the 400-meter freestyle relay, beating the French team by a fingertip. The victory lets Michael Phelps continue his quest to win a historic eight gold medals, but it was teammate Jason Lezak who clinched this medal with the fastest relay lap ever.

The race rose above the rest of Sunday's Olympic competition for its sheer drama and remarkable finish. It was one of those moments that elite athletes carve into our memories, and it shows how years of preparation can be reduced to a fraction of a second.

Here's how it began, 3 minutes and 8 seconds before the fingertip finish: American Michael Phelps and seven other swimmers hit the water for the relay. Each swimmer had three teammates cheering from the deck and waiting for their turn at a single 100-meter lap. It was fast right from the start. At one point, six teams were under world record pace, close to 4 seconds faster.

After the race, American Garrett Weber-Gale said the intensity of the moment fed the blistering pace.

"We had an awesome race, and we were pushed by the French and the Australians. I think we all just came together, and that's how we were able to go so fast," Weber-Gale said.

Weber-Gale followed Phelps for another 100 meters, and then came Cullen Jones. The French swimmers right next to them took the lead, but the Americans stayed close. It was the last lap that made history, with France's Alain Bernard holding the amazing pace, and American Jason Lezak trying to catch him. Bernard stayed ahead into and after the flip turn and down the stretch to the finish.

Bernard still led a few feet from the wall, but Lezak suddenly closed in. Neck and neck, stroke for stroke, lunging for the wall — it was a fingertip finish, just 0.08 seconds apart. And it was the fastest relay lap ever.

At 32, Lezak is the oldest swimmer on the American team. After the race, he described that final mad struggle for speed.

"When I flipped at the 50 and I still saw how far ahead he was, and he was the world record holder, a thought really crossed my mind for a split second: There's no way," Lezak said. "And then I changed. I said, 'You know what? That's ridiculous. It's the Olympics and I'm here for the United States of America. And I don't care how bad it hurts or whatever. I'm just just gonna go out there.' ... Honestly in like 5 seconds, I was thinking all these things and just got like a supercharge and just took it from there. ... It was unreal."

Lezak had won it for the Americans, and teammate Weber-Gale couldn't believe what he had seen.

"It was a crazy thing to watch," Weber-Gale said. "I just knew that last 15, 20 meters was going to be out of control. I just remember sitting there just pounding on the blocks, saying the F-word, just like 'Come on!' I just remember looking at the finish, and it was a perfect touch, and I looked up at the block and then I was just ecstatic."

So was Phelps, who danced and pumped his chest on the deck after the race. It was his second gold medal of the games. He is entered in six more events, and if he finishes first in all of them, he'll be the top gold medal winner in a single Olympics in any sport. Phelps described one motivating factor for the race.

"The French team was talking a little trash, and, you know, it fired me up more than anything else," he said.

Phelps' historic quest was not a motivating factor for the rest of the team. Lezak and his teammates embraced their own historic moment.

"I think Michael knows we did not do this for him. He was just a part of it. And we were a part of it," Lezak said.

And anybody who watched was a part of it — an unforgettable Olympic moment.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.