Ten years ago today, the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay at the Beijing Olympics created such a cultural impact that its result transcended sports conversations and became a hot topic for weeks.
With national pride and a historic benchmark on the line, the race between France and the United States was predestined to be one that would be talked about for a long time. But no one expected the three-minute race to be one of the most memorable moments of the modern Olympics, or catapult its participants into worldwide celebrity.
We’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the legendary performance of Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak with a look back on that day and what allowed the Americans to win against all odds.
First, a little bit of history. The Americans hadn’t won the event since the 1996 Olympics, and were looking to end their losing streak. The French wanted to be the next country to stop the Americans in their tracks, and star Alain Bernard spoke about wanting to “smash” the Americans in the pool. If that happened, Phelps’ quest for eight golds in a single Olympics would be over on the meet’s second day.
Jones: It was a lot of pressure because there was only one spot available in the finals for that relay. Garrett and Jason got first and second at Trials, and they were immediately throwing Michael on the final relay. But I was just the kid in the candy store. There was a lot of anticipation before the race. It had a David and Goliath feel to it.
In 2006, I was racing in the Charlotte UltraSwim and I was swimming the 100 free final on the last night. It kept getting postponed because of lightning. We ended up swimming at 9:00 at night, and I’m swimming next to Michael. I get second to Michael and he said to me, “Finally, we have our fourth guy in our 400 free relay.” My mind was blown at that point that he put that on me. I trained my butt off that summer, and we got the world record at Pan Pacs. Michael lit the fire under me then, so to be back on the relay in 2008 was a nice feeling.
Weber-Gale: I loved every single moment of it. I didn’t feel any pressure. That would have been different if it had been my individual event at the Olympics. But, I was there with my teammates. It felt amazing. For weeks leading up to that, I had been ready to rock on the relay. I had a lot of talks with Jason and Michael about it, and we were so excited for that relay. It was just another meet, and I was excited to have fun.
It felt like there was so much testosterone about to explode in the ready room that if someone said something wrong or looked at someone wrong, a fight could break out immediately. I was reveling in the moment and the fact that I was able to be there in the moment with those guys representing our country.
We were walking down the hallway between the warm down pool and the race pool. Lezak calls the four of us together and he said if we swim it as four individual 100s, then nothing good happens. So, let’s go and swim a 400 freestyle and let’s do it together. Michael, Cullen and I looked at each other and thought Jason was a god. Those were the wisest words we ever heard. We walked into that ready room with our heads held high.
Lezak: As short as that speech was, I could tell by looking into these guys’ eyes that we were ready, and we were going to do something special.
The ready room was intense. You’re looking around at all the teams and trying to stay away from all the nonsense and focus on us as a team. A lot of the reason why we didn’t win those relays in the past was because we had four guys walk up to those blocks and race. Yeah, we were Team USA, but were we really a team? I thought we really needed to be a team and care about how each of us did and knew that every one of us was going to make a difference on that relay.
Phelps led off the relay with a 47.51, breaking the American record. The United States was in second place behind Australia, thanks to Eamon Sullivan’s world record of 47.24.
Weber-Gale: The plan as described by (men’s head coach Eddie Reese) to me was that Michael was going to lead off and get us out front. Michael was going to be with anyone in the race. We figured Eamon Sullivan was going to go really fast, but we knew Michael would get us in the mix. My job was to build the lead (that Phelps created over the French). We did everything that we possibly could and raced our tails off. It doesn’t transpire the way you may have expected, but the end result was as we expected.
Jones: I knew I was swimming against Fred Bousquet, a good friend of mine who was the second-fastest freestyler in history at the time. I was the fourth-fastest guy on our U.S. team, and Eddie came to me and said, “Don’t mess this up.”
I swam a 47.6. Nothing to be ashamed of. I went out extremely fast in the first 50 of my 100 and suffered the entire way back. But I put Jason in a good position to be on Alain Bernard’s heel. I was worried, though, that I lost it for the team.
When Lezak dove into the water, France’s Alain Bernard was six tenths ahead. That’s seemingly insurmountable when racing against the former world record holder in the 100 freestyle.
Lezak: After we qualified for the Olympic team, we were in a month of training camp. There was a lot of down time, and I thought about this race a lot. I just wanted to be in the lead. I figured if I was in the lead, I could hold this guy off and we could win. When I was on the starting block and saw we were behind, it was not how I envisioned it would happen.
My first thought on the block was I needed to have the best relay start of my life. With my teammates yelling at me and the crowd going crazy, I was so pumped up that I did my start and my first thought was that I left early and I blew this for Team USA. My reaction was .03, which is pushing it at the Olympic Games.
I had never been able to be in a situation where I could draft. As I went from the middle of the pool to the lane line, (Bernard) pulled away from me because I swam extra distance to get there. I’m not a scientist, but I don’t know if I was in the right drafting area at the time. By the time I got to the 50, he was a body length ahead of me. I thought there was absolutely no way I could catch him. Once again, I tried to override those thoughts, because I was feeling good.
Weber-Gale: Michael and I were screaming everything we possibly could at Jason when Cullen was coming into the wall. Jason dives off the block, and about 25 meters into the race, Jason’s head is at Bernard’s feet. Michael and I looked at each other and we thought we were going to win the silver medal. We would have been disappointed in the silver medal because we expected to win gold. In the weeks leading up to the race, we never understood how France thought they were the best. We had three guys who could go 47 from a flat start. The cheering from Michael and I had waned from the 25 to the 60. Jason hits the wall, and from where we were standing, Jason seemed to keep making progress.
As that happened, Michael and I got louder. I remember pounding my fists on the blocks and screaming at the top of my lungs.
Phelps: As soon as Jason came off that last wall, I started going crazy. I was going nuts.
Lezak: I was breathing to (Bernard’s) side. I could see him on every stroke. I could see myself inching up little by little. With 15 meters left, I felt this extra surge of adrenaline like I never felt before, and that enabled me to keep my speed all the way to the wall.
Jones: I was on the side catching my breath because I swam as fast as I possibly could. I was also the first person to see Jason touch the wall. I was the first person to jump up and celebrate because I could see Jason touch.
Weber-Gale: Jason hits the wall, and we were peering over the block but it was too close to tell who won. I see “United States of America” with a “1” next to it (on the scoreboard). I had to look twice because I couldn’t believe that a lead of that type had been erased.
Lezak: I was in shock and absolutely exhausted. I could hardly climb out of the pool. All I wanted to do was put my arms around my teammates so I wouldn’t fall over. It was an amazing feeling, but I wasn’t ready to celebrate yet because I could hardly move.
Phelps: This is our event, and we wanted to get that race back. The four of us put together a pretty near perfect race.
After the race, the term “getting Lezaked” was born. Phelps continued his journey toward making history, and his relay teammates’ lives would change dramatically, including winning an ESPY for “Best Moment” in 2009.
Jones: I didn’t get to warm down. I was doing 13 hours with the media. I was done at 1:00 the next morning. It was hoarse at the end of that. At that point, I still hadn’t watched the race.
I got back to my room at 2:00 that morning, but I had to get up to cheer for the team in the next sessions. One of the reasons why we do so well is everyone is required be there cheering on the team.
Weber-Gale: I don’t remember anything that happened for the next 15 minutes. The next thing I really remember was being on the awards stand and I was getting the medal put around my neck. I could hear my name being called out, and it was my mom. She was there with my dad and my sister. The look on their faces of excitement was the absolute best moment of my sporting career. I realized how much time and effort they put into my success. This wasn’t just my Olympic gold medal. This was their Olympic gold medal, too, and all the other people who helped me get there.
I went back to the Olympic Village and I had the gold medal in a cargo pocket on my right leg. People were coming up to me in the dining hall (congratulating me). I took the gold medal out to show them. Eddie Reese is amazing at getting people refocused. He told me to focus and think about what happened next. I was excited to swim the 100 free (two days later). In the prelims I swam OK. In the (semifinals), I went 48.1, and I executed that race as best as I possibly could. I could not have swum that race better, and that was all I had. One of the things I pride myself on was being able to get out of myself every single bit of my soul in every race.
Lezak: This took place at 11:30 in the morning. I was exhausted, physically and mentally drained. I’m sitting on my bed thinking I was going to get a nap, and I’m looking at my phone. Back then, Blackberry Messenger was pretty popular. I’m looking at BBM nonstop and I tried to get some rest. I laid there and couldn’t sleep.
I went back to prelims that night. I still couldn’t sleep that night. That excitement was still in there. There was so much happiness that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had to swim prelims (of the 100 free) the next day and my body was a wreck.
Jones: It took me a while to wrap my mind around the fact that I was an Olympian, and then to be an Olympic gold medalist on top of that. I was coming home and going through airports and people recognized me. It was a crazy feeling to come home and know the impact that (the relay) had. You can’t prepare anyone for it. I was doing talk shows and traveling everywhere. It was my way of having a platform at that point.
A friend asked me if I knew what I had done for swimming. All I knew was that I had won a gold medal, and then USA Swimming approached me about Make a Splash. At my first clinic in Houston, we went to a school and there were 300 kids there. I told my story and they were listening to every word that came out of my mouth. A lot of them came up to me and said they wanted to be like me. They were looking at me in the same way I was looking up to people when I was younger. I realized how much weight (this race) had when I looked in these kids’ eyes.
Weber-Gale: I’ll meet people randomly who don’t know anything about swimming … and they will tell me where they were when they watched the race. People remember that race vividly. What really sticks out is the hero’s journey about this country that was a superpower but was supposed to be behind and these Frenchmen that were talking about winning. It showed we were capable of doing extraordinary things.
Lezak: I’ve never been the kind of person to seek attention or caring a lot about what people thought. I’ve heard people say I was only a relay swimmer, but I won an individual medal at 32 (bronze in the 100 freestyle). I don’t mind people only remembering me from that race.
After the race for a few years, people were saying (getting Lezaked) all the time. I never thought anyone would use my name like that. It’s all good.
Jones: My goal from the start was to swim an individual event (at the Olympics) and feel like I was a key member. It was a little bittersweet not making it (in the 50 or 100 freestyles), but being able to go to the Olympics and win in that fashion and bring a medal home – not just a medal, but maybe the most exciting medal of the entire Olympics – is a good feeling.
We were at Golden Goggles in 2016 and we were all there. It was the first time all four of us had been in the same place. We looked around and started laughing. It was an unspoken bond that we had. We’ve been pulled in multiple directions and have been able to speak separately on our experiences, but it was pretty cool to be there again.
Weber-Gale: If this had been an individual race, it wouldn’t have this hype that has lasted 10 years. I viewed the Olympics as a sporting event. The Olympics is a way to show people what’s possible. People thanked me for representing our country and representing our hopes and dreams. People who I never met were talking to me like I was their son. People resonated with the story of our victory.
I watch the race 98 percent of the time when I’ve given a clinic. Outside of that, I’ve watched the race start to finish 100 times. When you watch something like that, it triggers things in your brain you might not have been able to remember. It reminds you of small anecdotes that were buried in your brain.
Jones: I have not watched the whole thing. I’m immediately transported back to that moment, and my heart rate goes through the roof. I’ve watched bits and pieces of it.
An edited version of this article appeared in the summer 2018 edition of Splash.