The Beijing Olympics in 2008 will go down as one of the most historic Olympic Games for the sport of swimming. There are a number of reasons that make this Olympics so special, but for the scope of this Whiteboard Wednesday, we’re going to focus on the Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay.
Jason Lezak anchored for the United States in a 46.06! It has been said over and over again that this is the most incredible relay split in Olympic History. I’d argue it’s the most incredible swimming performance period. It’s one of those moments that if you were watching it live you knew where you were standing and who you were with.
10 years ago the sport of swimming witnessed American swimmer Jason Lezak anchor the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay in a time of 46.06. Not only is the time absolutely ridiculous, but to come from behind and out touch the heavily favored French made the race that much more dramatic.
The Americans hadn’t won the event since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and were looking to end their losing streak.
The French were the heavy favorite. They had 4 sprinters that on paper should have beaten the Americans.
To make the win even more dramatic for the United States, Michael Phelps was leading off the relay.
This is hugely significant because at these Olympic Games, Michael was going for 8 Gold Medals which had never been done in a single Olympic Games. Fellow American Mark Spitz had the previous record of 7 Gold Medals at a single Games and Michael was in position to win 8.
Here’s the play-by-play:
This was really a two-team race between the French and the Americans. Michael Phelps lead off the United States with a monster 47.5 split which actually broke the American Record in the event, but all the teams were in the wash, because in the lane right next to Phelps was Australians Eamon Sullivan who broke the World Record leading off the relay.
Into the water next was Garret Weber Gale splitting a 47.0, followed by Cullen Jones who split a 47.6. These times are amazing, but in the lane next to Cullen Jones was Freddy Bousquet who split a monster 46.6.
By the third leg of the race it looked like it was over, the French were pulling away from the Americans, and Jason Lezak would dive in a full body length behind Alain Bernard who had a faster time on paper than Lezak did.
I remember watching this and you could just feel the reality start to set-in that the Americans were not going to win the race and even the commentators had little confidence in Lezak’s ability to regain the lead from Bernard.
Everything seemed hopeless until about the last 35 meters when it looked like Bernard was starting to fade and Lezak was closing the gap. The final 15 seconds of this race get me and so many other so emotional. It’s absolutely insane to watch the final 10 meters. Lezak is still behind with 5 meters to go, and by the timing of the finish, it is the United States that pulls ahead of France for Gold.
Now If you take a step back and remove any team bias you may have, whether you’re from the United States or France, a Phelps fan or not, you have to comprehend Jason Lezaks split.
He split a 46.06 in the 100m Freestyle. In Rowdy Gaines’ own words, not only is this the fastest in history, it blew away the fastest in history.
If we look at the splits between Lezak and Bernard, you can see just how fast both of these swimmers went out. Bernard’s 21.2 on the way out is just rediculous, and Lezaks 21.5 out is just as silly. Lezak was able to ride the draft on the way down, and attack the second 50 bringing it home in a monster 24.5.
For context, the World Record in the 100m Freestyle was set by Cesar Cielo of Brazil at 46.9 in 2009 at the World Championships in Rome. There’s no question that it was a monster swim. The top three relay teams put together outstanding splits. The World Record was broken by four full seconds.
There are a number of factors that contribute to this incredible performance. Whether the 46.06 was done at the Olympic Games with Phelps’s Gold Medal count on the line or not doesn’t shy away from how incredible this split is. Below are a few contributing factors.
- Tech Suits – Allows swimmers to well, swim faster
- Drafting – Lezak was in perfect drafting territory (distance from lead swimmer Bernard)
- Relay Swimmer – Some swimmers (like Lezak) historically perform better on relays. This is both from having a relay start and getting amped up to compete for your team!
- Heart – Sometimes when everything is on the line, human beings are capable of superhuman things.
On the third night of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jason Lezak was a super human. He split 2.50% faster than the existing world record of 47.24, which was set by Eamon Sullivan from Australia with his lead-off leg about 100 seconds earlier.
46.06 still stands today as the fastest relay split in history. Up and coming super stars like Caeleb Dressel have a shot at surpassing this mark, but many believe it will last another decade. Time will tell. In the meantime, it gives us sports fans who were lucky enough to witness it live something to remember for the rest of our lives.
I hope this video was helpful in understanding how incredible this relay was for the sport of swimming and sports in general!
Until next time, happy swimming!