Monday, August 11, 2008

Champions are made from something they have deep inside them -- a desire, a dream, a vision.

I love the Olympics. I always have. I remember being a kid and sitting down with my mom to watch gymnastics or track or figure skating and being mesmerized by the drama of it all. One chance every 4 years to win gold. One mistake and it's all over. One chance to do something extraordinary.

Once I started swimming at age 11, I became an even bigger fan of the summer Olympics because it was the one time that I could watch my sport on TV. Swimming, not being one of your mainstream sports, it a bit hard to find on the tube between Olympic years. Even now, with dozens of sports channels, you are lucky to find anything more than the Olympic trials and the Olympics themselves broadcast.

But the Olympics are here. And now, with Michael Phelps as the poster boy for the entire US delegation and swimming for an unheard of 8 gold medals, swimming isn't just on TV, it is the main attraction. Swimming has gone from an afterthought broadcast at 2am in Sydney to a semi-popular Phelps watching event in Athens to Prime Time viewing in Beijing. Thanks to Phelps, the swimming events are not only broadcast in prime time this Olympics, they are also shown live (since the Olympic organizers decided to put the finals in the morning (Beijing time) to accommodate the US viewing audience.

Now, I'll have to admit, I don't follow the sport as closely as I once did. I am more familiar with names like Gary Hall Jr, Summer Sanders, Alexander Popov, and Ian Thorpe than I am with most of this year's Olympic team, although a few names (Amanda Beard, Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin, Aaron Piersol) are familiar to me. But I still love the sport. And I still love to watch it. Especially during the Olympics. I love watching Michael Phelps go for his 8 gold medals. I love watching Katie Hoff trying for 5 golds. I love watching Aaron Piersol do just about anything. But my absolute favorite part of any swim meet, including the Olympics, is watching the relays.

I love Relays. I love swimming them and I love watching them. There is just something almost magical about watching a good relay swim. And last night in the Men's 4x100 freestyle relay, it was magic.

In an event that the US men had dominated in the past (7 straight Olympic golds before the 2000 games), the US was a rather larger underdog. Despite the presence of Michael Phelps. Despite being the top qualifier. Despite setting the World Record in the Prelims. France was the favorite going into the race. They had taunted the US team in the media (much like Gary Hall did to the Aussies before the 2000 games) saying that they would "smash the US". But in the end, the only thing that got smashed was the World Record with the top 5 team finishing under the mark set just the day before.

Phelps led off with a new American Record time of 47.51, but touched just behind the Aussie who set a new World Record with a 47.24 split. Garrett Webber-Gale entered second and gave the US the lead at the half way point with an impressive 47.02 split. France was second 0.43 seconds behind and Australia was third only 0.15 seconds behind them.

Cullen Jones, only the second African-American to ever make the US Olympic swimming team (Anthony Ervin in 2000 was the first and he tied with Gary Hall Jr to win gold in the 50m Freestyle) entered the water for the third leg. He had earned his place on the relay the day before with his great split during prelims which helped the team to set a new World Record despite not having their 3 top sprinters on the team. Cullen split a 47.65 for his leg, but lost ground to Bosquet of France who swam a 46.63, the fastest relay split in Olympic history.

France went into the water 0.59 seconds ahead of the US with World Record Holder (at least before the race) Alain Bernard. It was up to Jason Lezak to make up the difference. At the turn, he was still behind and didn't appear to be gaining ground. But he wasn't ready to quit yet. Lezak dug in and slowly inched up on Bernard throughout the last 50 meters. He gained ground with every stroke, just out touching Bernard at the finish by 0.08 seconds in 3:08.24, shattering the old world record (3:12.23) by 4 seconds, and splitting an incredible 46.06 the fastest relay split in history.

It was one of the most incredible feats I have ever seen in the pool. 0.59 seconds in the 100 free is an eternity, especially at the Olympic level. At the US Olympic trials, the top 4 finishers were separated by only 0.54 seconds at the finish and Lezak swam at 48.05 (although that was with a flat start). But there are two kinds of swimmers: individual swimmers and relay swimmers. Individual swimmers can be great athletes. They can turn in impressive times. They can hold world records. Alain Bernard is an individual swimmer.

A relay swimmer will lay it all on the line for a relay. They will turn in incredible performances during relay swims. They will some how find a way to pull it out, even when all seems lost. Jason Lezak is a relay swimmer. He is the guy you want anchoring your relay.

Traditional wisdom says you should structure your relay like this: 1. Your second fastest swimmer 2. Your slowest swimmer 3. Your second slowest swimmer 4. Your fastest swimmer. Most relays are put together that way, although there are many that aren't. Using that wisdom, the US relay should have looked something like this: 1. Garrett Webber-Gale, 2. Cullen Jones 3. Jason Lezak 4. Michael Phelps.

But you can crunch the numbers all you want, times aren't all that goes into making a great relay team. You have to factor in heart as well. And Jason Lezak is a relay swimmer. He is a closer. He is a finisher. He is the man you want to bring things home. And bring them home he did. In spectacular fashion.

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