BEIJING - By a fingertip, Michael Phelps is still on course for eight gold medals. He can thank Jason Lezak for getting him No. 2.
The oldest man on the U.S. swimming team pulled off one of the great comebacks in Olympic history this morning, lunging to the wall just ahead of France's Alain Bernard in a race so fast it actually erased two world
Few sporting events live up to the hype - this one exceeded it. The 32-year-old Lezak was nearly a body length behind the massive Bernard as they made the final turn, but the American hugged the lane rope, drafting off the Frenchman and stunningly overtaking him on the very last stroke.
Watching on deck, Phelps let out a resounding "Yeaaaaaah!" and thrust both arms toward the roof of the Water Cube. His quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals had survived what will likely be its toughest test.
The Americans shattered the world record set by their "B" team the previous evening in the preliminaries, touching with a time of 3 minute, 8.24 seconds - nearly four full seconds below the 15-hour-old mark of 3:12.23.
"I was going nuts," Phelps, who swam the leadoff leg and then became the team's biggest cheerleader, told NBC. "As soon as [Lezak] came off that last wall, I started going crazy. We're a team. We went in as a team, and now we're exiting as a team - and we're going out with that gold that we needed to get back."
The Americans won the 400 free relay at seven straight Olympics but watched the Australians and South Africans take gold at the last two games.
"I've been on the last two relays where we came up short," Lezak said. "To be honest with you, I got really tired of losing."
Bernard was the world record holder in the 100, but he lost that mark as well. Australia's Eamon Sullivan broke the individual record by swimming the leadoff leg in 47.24 - ahead of Bernard's mark of 47.50.
While the Americans whooped it up on deck, Bernard clung to the wall, his head down. The swimmer who had talked confidently of beating the Americans was the last one to leave the pool.
The French were second in
3:08.32 - eight one-hundredths of a second behind. Australia took the bronze in 3:09.91. In fact, the top five all went below the record set yesterday.
The U.S. also got a taste of disappointment when Katie Hoff was upset in the 400-meter freestyle, losing the Olympic gold medal to Rebecca Adlington of Britain.
Adlington overhauled Hoff down the stretch to win in 4 minutes, 3.22 seconds this morning. Hoff took the silver in 4:03.29. Adlington's teammate Joanne Jackson earned the bronze in 4:03.52. Defending champion Laure Manaudou finished eighth and last.
Hoff is 0-for-2 in finals so far, taking a bronze in the 400 individual medley.
Two more world records fell this morning when Kosuke Kitajima of Japan finished off American Brendan Hansen's hopes of an individual medal, winning the 100 breaststroke in 58.91 seconds.
Kitajima pounded the water defiantly and let out a scream after breaking Hansen's two-year-old record of 59.13.
Kirsty Coventry didn't even bother waiting until a final to set a record in the 100 backstroke. The Zimbabwean won her semifinal heat in 58.77, taking down Natalie Coughlin's mark of 58.97 set at the U.S. trials last month.
They'll go head to head in tomorrow morning's final.
Coughlin won her heat in 59.43 with a nice, comfortable swim.