It’s Olympic season, and even though we’re still a couple of months out from the opening ceremonies in Rio, commercials have started airing and the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska are a couple of weeks away. While I try to catch the majority of Olympic events, swimming has always been a favorite of mine to watch considering I spent nine years of my life ingrained in the USA Swimming world as a competitive swimmer.
There have been many great Olympic swimming moments, but I often find myself Googling the entirety of the men’s 400 freestyle relay final from the 2008 Beijing Olympics every other month or so. I remember watching the race in real time eight years ago in my basement with my parents. Never have I ever experienced a moment more patriotic in sports history than the moment Jason Lezak out-touched the French team by .08ths of a second.
Remember, 2008 was the year all eyes were on Michael Phelps as he attempted to win eight Olympic gold medals, which would beat out Mark Spitz’s previous gold medal record of seven. He did, but not without a little help from his relay teammates. Phelps’ amazing journey to eight gold medals that year isn’t the only reason I fondly look back at this race with pride. At the time of the race, it would have only been Phelps’ second gold medal that year. There were other great stories from the men on that relay team that year, too.
Michael Phelps led off the race with an American Record, but only managing to get the U.S. team into second place by the end of his 100 freestyle. Swimming second was Garrett Weber-Gale, a young newcomer in the USA Swimming world whose very first Olympic swim was that historic 400 freestyle relay. He’s the one screaming next to Phelps in the picture above. Swimming the third leg was Cullen Jones, the first African-American to hold a world record in swimming, which was earned in the 400×100 meter freestyle relay at a previous meet.
Then, there was Jason Lezak, and at the age of 33, he was the oldest male swimmer of the 2008 U.S. Olympic swim team. When Lezak started the last leg of the race, he was nearly a full body length behind the anchor for the French team, Alain Bernard. Going into the race, Bernard was the world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. 25-meters out from the finish, Lezak had gained about half a body length on Bernard but with being that close to the finish, a U.S. Olympic win didn’t seem possible, and with that, Michael Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals finished before it ever really started.
While writing this article, I re-watched the full race a couple of times. On my second watch, my mom asked if I could hook my computer up to our flat screen in the living room in order to watch it on a bigger screen, systematically recreating our seating positions from eight years ago. It’s a nine minute long video, with the majority of it being Rowdy Gaines and some other broadcaster talking while we watch the teams walk out to the blocks. They talk about Phelps’ gold medal quest and how Bernard and the French team were the favorites. They talk about the French team’s quote leading up to the event, that arrogant and ultimately humiliating “We’re going to smash them” quote from Bernard. “Them” being the Americans. Rowdy even says at one point that every time he works it out on paper, the French were the winners. But that was all just talk.
Despite knowing all of this, despite having watched this exact broadcast eight years ago, and despite knowing that Bernard was going to tighten up his stroke in the last 20-meters allowing Lezak to sneak ahead by barely an inch, breaking the world record by 3.99 seconds, my mom and I, with my dad listening from the kitchen, were just as on the edge of our seats as were before, losing ourselves in the moment of perfect U.S. Olympic history.
There’s nothing like it, folks. 2008 wasn’t just Phelps’ year, and that 400 freestyle relay proves that. Lezak swam in one last Olympics in 2012 before retiring. Phelps had an understandably less exciting turn in London four years ago (though still exciting enough with four gold medals and one silver). He has since had a kid and plans on swimming at the trials in a couple of weeks. Jones won a couple of silver medals and one gold in London. Weber-Gale did not swim at the 2012 Olympics.
Out of the four of them, I only know of Michael Phelps swimming at the trials this year. And even though I’m sure there is still exciting things down the line for the U.S. Olympic team, it’s going to take a lot for anything to come close to that relay team. And those suits. Anyone remember those wacky Americanized FastSkins the U.S. team was wearing that year? What happened to those? Let’s bring those back.
**photo via Seattlepi.com
Katey is a writer and film and television critic. She maintains Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of the past decade, and definitely deserved Best Picture at the Oscars. Follow her on Twitter, where her Twitter bio says she live tweets her progress of “The X-Files,” but that hasn’t actually happened in a really long time. Follow her anyway. It’ll be a laugh, probably.