RIO de JANEIRO — Of all the images from Michael Phelps’ storied career, perhaps none is as visceral — as open and truthfully honest — as the shot from the finish of the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a portrait of Phelps screaming to the heavens in raw, primal, triumphant victory.
This was the race in which Jason Lezak somehow willed his way past France’s Alain Bernard. Lezak was behind when he dove in. He was behind at the turn. He was behind until the very end, when he out-touched Bernard in a moment that instantly became an Olympic classic.
Right there on the deck, Phelps, who had set the Americans to the lead in the first leg, roared. Right behind him, Garrett Weber-Gale, who had pulled the second leg in the relay, fists clenched, leaned back and screamed in jubilation. Both guys were in their star-spangled LZR suits.
This is the red, white and blue moment the U.S. swim team lives for.
This is the moment the Americans have — ever since — been trying to recapture.
On Sunday night, the magic came back. Big time.
Phelps delivered a phenomenal second leg and Nathan Adrian, anchoring, held on as the Americans took back the 4x100m free relay, swimming’s indisputably best event at the Olympics, in 3:09.92.
France took second, the Australians third.
For Phelps, the race marked his 19th Olympic gold medal, 23rd overall. Adrian, the 100m freestyle winner in London, cemented his reputation for performing in the clutch.
The cameras lovingly panned, time and again, to Debbie Phelps, Michael’s mother, and to Nicole Johnson, his fiancée, who was holding baby Boomer, his little head covered by earphones.
“A lot more emotional,” Phelps said of swimming with the baby in attendance, adding, “It’s an inspiration to have him.”
Phelps is notoriously private about his goals. But you can be sure when he announced he was coming back, after the London 2012 retirement thing, that this relay made for a primary motivator.
“Being part of the 4x100m relay was a dream of mine,” Phelps said. “I’ve been on the good side and the bad side of it. I’m happy we were able to win that relay, as a team.”
Phelps has always been an outspoken advocate for the American swim team and, beyond, the entire United States of America. As flag carrier, did you see the way he led the U.S. team into Opening Ceremony here Friday night — amid the other Americans, not out in front?
The Americans used to own this 4x100m freestyle relay. For Phelps and many others in the U.S. swim community, this relay makes for a statement. In Olympic history, the Americans have won the relay all but three times — in Sydney in 2000 (Aussies with the gold), Athens 2004 (South Africa), London 2012 (France). In those three races, the U.S. guys took silver (2000), bronze (2004), silver (2012).
The Lezak race remains a classic not just because of what Lezak did and not just because it kept alive Phelps’ run for eight gold medals. The American guys, after silver and bronze in the prior two Games, wanted Beijing gold – and bad – in the 4x100m.
The Americans followed up the Beijing victory with a win at the 2009 Worlds in Rome.
Since then, however, the relay had proven a world of hurt.
Shanghai 2011 World Championships: Australia, France, USA 1-2-3.
London 2012: France turns the table on the Americans, revenge for getting Lezak’d in 2008. France, USA, Russia.
Barcelona 2013 Worlds: Phelps was a spectator, literally in the stands at the Palau Sant Jordi, his foot in a boot because of an injured ankle. From there he memorably sent a string of text messages to his longtime coach and mentor, Bob Bowman, with — shall we say — suggestions and observations about the American effort.
Results: France, USA, Russia.
The 2015 Worlds in Kazan, Russia, and the low point: the U.S. guys didn’t even qualify for the final, placing 11th in the heats. Phelps wasn’t there; he stayed home amid the USA Swimming-ordered sanctions that followed his second DUI incident.
Of course, the Americans could have opted to keep Phelps off the Sunday night relay. He did not compete in the 100m freestyle finals at the U.S. Trials in Omaha. But then imagine the backlash: the greatest of all time, in an event the U.S. desperately wanted to win, and you kept him on the bench?
“All along the way, we decided as a staff that our only goal was win a gold medal,” Bowman said, adding, “Not to be politically correct. Or follow some rule. But to do whatever we needed to do to put four guys up there who would win.”
The trick to winning the relay is simple to explain but at the same time very difficult to execute.
You need an opening leg, with its flat start, in the low 48s or, better, 47s. The other three guys have to go in the 47s. A 46 usually means something really good.
In 2008, Lezak split an other-worldly 46.06. The U.S. team — Phelps, Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Lezak — set the still-standing world record, 3:08.24.
To take from that race: Phelps went 47.51, Weber-Gale 47.02, Jones 47.65. Then Lezak did his thing.
To take from the 2015 Kazan disaster: Jimmy Feigen 49.21, Anthony Ervin 49.69, Matt Grevers 48.67, Conor Dwyer 48.44.
Feigen atoned for that race in Sunday afternoon’s prelims, a flat-start 48.55. Ryan Held, just 21, pulled a 47.79 second split; that put him into the night final.
The U.S. lineup in the final: Caeleb Dressel, an even-younger 19, second at the U.S. Trials in the 100m behind Adrian.
The sequence: Dressel, Phelps, Held, Adrian.
The splits: 48.10, 47.12, 47.73 and then Adrian with a ferocious 46.97.
Adrian said, “We went from a team that last year at the world championships didn’t qualify for the top-eight, and everybody was like, ‘What happened to American swimming? What happened to American swimming?’ People didn’t realize what we left on the table back home. Michael was swimming at — Michael, Ryan and Caeleb were all swimming back at home in San Antonio,” at the U.S. nationals, “getting ready for today.”
Phelps’ leg was punctuated by his turn at 50 meters. It was… flawless. Bowman, who has been coaching Phelps for 20 years, asked to rank it, said, “That might be the best one. The best freestyle turn. Yeah. And his underwaters right now are super-fast,” which bodes well for the rest of Phelps’ program here in Rio.
A few moments later, on the podium, France’s Florent Manaudou had that McKayla Maroney look. As was clear when he surveyed his silver: Il n’est pas impressioné: for sure not impressed.
As for the Americans: There were tears of joy all around. First, Held. Then, Phelps said, he and Adrian. As they walked around the deck a moment later, Dressel cried, too — climbing up the stairs to meet a high-school coach.
“I’ve heard the national anthem thousands of times before,” Held would say later. “There was something different about this one. I just couldn’t hold back the tears.”
“I was saying to Nathan, I was, like, I was trying to hold back as much as I could. He started shedding tears. Then Ryan started shedding tears.
“That was one of the coolest races to be part of.”