BEIJING – The United States wrapped up the final session of swimming Sunday at the National Aquatics Center with a gold medal and a world record in the men’s 400m medley relay. In the process, Michael Phelps made history by winning eight gold medals, more than any other athlete at a single Olympic Games.
In the medley, Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Phelps and Jason Lezak finished with a time of 3:29.34, 1.34 seconds faster than the former world record of 3:30.68 set by the United States four year ago in Athens.
It was one of three medals won by the U.S. Sunday. Dara Torres won silver with an American record of 24.07 in the women’s 50m free (24.07), while Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni, Christine Magnuson and Torres teamed up for silver with an American record of 3:53.30 in the women’s 400m medley relay. Coughlin also set the American record in the 100m back, leading off the relay in 58.94.
The team finished the eighth day of competition with 31 medals overall – 12 gold, 9 silver and 10 bronze.
Other highlights from Thursday’s finals included Australia’s world record in the 400m medley relay (3:52.69) and Germany’s Britta Steffen setting the Olympic record in the women’s 50m free, finishing one-hundredth of a second ahead of Torres in 24.06.
Turning to the races, world record-holder Peirsol established an early lead for the U.S. in the men’s medley, touching more than half a second ahead of the rest of the field in the backstroke. Japan and Australia then took a slight lead in the breaststroke leg, but Phelps set Lezak up with about a one-second advantage going into the freestyle.
And just like he did earlier this week in the men’s 400m free relay, Lezak brought it home, turning in the second-fastest freestyle split in 46.76. Only Australia’s Eamon Sullivan had a faster split (46.65), but it wasn’t enough for the Aussies, who claimed the silver in 3:30.04. Their time was also under the former world record. Japan was third in 3:31.18.
Lezak won three medals this week, including the now-legendary gold in the 400m free relay and a bronze in the 100m free.
“I was just trying not to blow the lead to be honest,” Lezak said. “I was really nervous. I didn’t go in (to the 400m free relay) expecting to beat Bernard, and I knew Eamon was capable of doing the same thing to me. I just wanted to take it out hard and hoped to hold on.”
Peirsol likewise has three medals, including a gold in the 100m back and a silver in the 200m back.
“We wanted to build on the momentum we had throughout the meet,” Peirsol said. “We certainly wanted to do this, not just for Michael, but for ourselves.”
During the awards ceremony for the relay, FINA honored Phelps for his historic accomplishment. He won seven of his eight golds in world-record time. His eighth gold, in the 100m butterfly, was an Olympic record. He has 14 Olympic gold medals over the course of his career.
“I can’t say it enough,” Phelps said. “I’ve been fairly speechless since the relay. It’s all been a dream come true. To be able to imagine something and work towards it and accomplish everything you ever dreamed of, it’s fun.
“These guys made it possible. The relay really made it possible. It shows how much teamwork and togetherness we have. It’s amazing to be a part of it. I wanted to do something that no one’s ever done in this sport, and without the help of my teammates, it wouldn’t have been possible.
“I have all the memories and the pictures. I’ll have all the medals, every suit, every cap, my award sweats, but the best memories for meets like this are spent with your teammates, playing spades with them, playing risk and just getting to know them To be a part of Team USA is one of the best memories I’ll take away from this.”
In the women’s 400m medley, Coughlin put the U.S. out front after the backstroke leg, but Australia jumped to the lead in the breaststroke and maintained that advantage through the butterfly, setting up a showdown in the last leg between Torres and Australia’s Libby Trickett. Torres made up significant ground on the Aussies but in the end just couldn’t catch Tricket.
Australia’s time shattered the world record by 3.05 seconds. China was third in 3:56.11.
“Natalie told us afterwards that it was an American record by a few seconds,” said Magnuson, who also won silver in the 100m butterfly. “I’m proud to be a part of that. I was glad to finish it off with another medal.”
It was the sixth medal for Coughlin, who also took gold in the 100m back, silver in the 400m free relay, bronze in the 800m free relay, bronze in the 200m IM and bronze in the 100m free.
“I was so nervous going into the Olympics with six events,” Coughlin said. “I had never done it at such a high caliber meet, but it got better as I went on.”
Torres swam the finals of the women’s 50m free about 40 minutes before the relay. As the field dove in and dashed down the length of the pool, she was in position to win, but Britta Steffen of Germany managed to get her hand on the wall a hundredth of a second faster. Cate Campbell of Australia took bronze in 24.17, while the United States’ Kara Lynn Joyce was sixth in 24.63.
In addition to her medals in the medley relay and the 50m free Sunday, Torres also won silver in the 400m free relay earlier in the meet. She now has 12 Olympic medals to her name over the course of five Games. That ties Jenny Thompson for the most medals won by a woman.
“I’m competitive, so I wanted to win gold in the 50,” Torres said. “I gave it my best shot, but I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night.”
In the men’s 1500m free, Australia’s Grant Hackett was denied his third consecutive Olympic gold medal in this event, finishing second behind Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli, 14:40.84 to 14:41.53. Canada’s Ryan Cochrane was third in 14:42.69. Larsen Jensen, the lone American swimmer in the finals, finished fifth in 14:48.16.
Though the pool competition has ended, Chloe Sutton and Mark Warkentin will be competing in the women's and men's 10K open water race on Wednesday and Thursday at the rowing basin.