That day, Phelps swam the fasted 100-meter butterfly in the history of the 4×100 medley race. He swam past the Japanese and Australian swimmers like they had anchors attached to their Speedos. He turned a half-second deficit into a full-second lead by the time he touched the wall, which ought to be a physical and mathematical impossibility. It was as magnificent a call to excellence as you ever will see, custom-built for the Olympics.
And even that wasn’t the best part.
The best part happened next, after Phelps climbed out of the pool as he joined two other members of that relay — Brendan Hansen and Aaron Piersol — on the pool’s deck and started cheering madly, rabidly, for Jason Lezak, finishing off the 100-meter freestyle portion of the race. This was an especially relevant moment for a couple of reasons.
Earlier in the meet, it was Lezak who had heroically kept alive Phelps’ quest to win eight gold medals when, in the anchor leg of the 4×100 relay, he had overcome Frenchman Alain Bernard — who had a half-body-length lead — and wound up beating him by eight-hundredths of a second. At the time, it seemed impossible that any race in any sport could be decided by that — by 0.008.
Except Phelps had won his seventh gold medal by 0.001, somehow getting his fingernail to the wall ahead of U.S.-born Serbian Milorad Cavic. Phelps would talk about how Lezak had inspired him, had proven, again, that as long as the wall beckons it’s there for you. There were protests aplenty after that race, but it was Cavic, in a stunning display of sportsmanship, who had put the matter to rest on his blog.
“People,” he wrote, “this is the greatest moment of my life. If you ask me, it should be accepted and we should move on. I’ve accepted defeat, and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been.”
And so it was that the greatest swimmer that ever has been was on the deck at The Cube, looking like any 11-year-old at any local swim meet anywhere in the world, screaming himself hoarse, cheering not for his own impending immortality, but for a teammate who already had lent him a forever hand. When Lezak finished up — another world record time, some 1.34 seconds faster than any American team ever had swam that race — Phelps was lost in a four-man scrum of joy.
Part of history. But part of a team most of all.
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