LONDON -- The cities are more than 5,000 miles apart, separated by a vast cultural gulf. Yet Beijing and London are Olympic brothers and seldom has the distance between them seemed less than it did Sunday in the London Aquatics Center. It was in Beijing on a Monday morning four years ago -- a Sunday night on television back in the United States -- that Michael Phelps learned that the difference between gold and silver can be not just the length of teammate's fingertip, but the depth of that teammate's will. It was when Phelps learned that eight gold medals were possible, but only through the performance of small miracles.
Jason Lezak was that teammate, 32 years old at the time, the oldest member of the U.S. men's swim team. He was a fast and accomplished sprinter, seemingly (but not actually, as time would tell) nearing the end of his career and he was designated to swim the anchor leg of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay in pool that was called the Water Cube. Phelps had won just a single gold medal when Lezak dived into the pool, trailing French world record holder Alain Bernard by nearly a full body length. It seemed that Phelps's bid for eight gold medals -- and America's desire to watch it every night on NBC -- would be stopped before it gained speed.
What took place in the ensuing seconds -- 46.06 of them, to be precise, faster than any man has swum 100 meters, although not eligible for world record consideration -- holds a place in American (or any) Olympic lore. Lezak swam down Bernard and out-touched him at the wall to keep Phelps's quest alive. There would be other moments for Phelps, but none more enduring. And none, it turns out, more difficult to replicate.
It was another American swimmer who dove into the pool for another anchor leg on another 4X100 free relay Sunday night in London. And this time France would win, because a young swimmer (not an old one) swam the race of his life. This time Phelps would wear a silver medal around his neck, the first among his 17 Olympic medals (along with 14 gold and two bronze). This time Phelps would even better understand what happened four years earlier. "I've thought back to a lot of those memories recently,'' Phelps would say when it was over. "I mean, things had to fall into the perfect place at the right time. In 2008, everything was in the perfect place for me.''
It was not a Cinderella Man like Lezak who swam the anchor this time (Lezak, still a member of the U.S. team, had swum in the morning's preliminary round, at age 36), but rather the prospective U.S. star of these Games, Ryan Lochte. One night earlier, Lochte had won the 400-meter individual medley by the widest margin in history, leaving Phelps a soundly beaten fourth. This time Lochte sliced into the water with .55-second lead over French anchor Yannick Angel.
The relay had gone perfectly for the Americans. In order to give Lochte, who seldom swims freestyle sprints, and the entire team, the best possible chance to hang on for a gold medal, they had front-loaded the lineup with Nathan Adrian (the best pure sprinter on the U.S. team) and Phelps (who coaches expected to improve off Sunday night's struggle) on the front end. Australia was the favorite, with powerful James Magnusson, the best sprinter in the world, on leadoff.
"We didn't want to get caught up in the wash behind Australia,'' said men's head coach Gregg Troy. "The goal was to get open water.'' Adrian swam 47.89 off the blocks (typically the slowest leg because it requires reaction time, and the only split eligible for world record consideration) and touched a shocking .14 in front of Magnusson. "We just didn't have it tonight,'' said Australian third leg Eamonn Sullivan. "For all signs, we thought [Magnussen] was going to break the [100-meter] world record [leading off]. James is so unbeatable, looked unbeatable for so long.''
Instead, it was Phelps who looked unbeatable, ripping through a 47.15 leg (times are slower than in 2008, because the high-tech suits that were commonly worn then were banned early in 2010) that was by far the fastest among the four U.S. swimmers. He touched .76 in the lead -- a full body length -- over France, which had narrowly overtaken Australia. "We tried to give ourselves as much open water as we could,'' said Phelps, who usually swims leadoff on the 4X100 but said that he told coaches he wanted to follow Adrian. "I was able to come back and have a great leg.''
Cullen Jones, 28, who also swam in the Beijing final, swam the third leg, and gave back .21 seconds to France, roughly a quarter of a body length. "I was trying not to pass out, I was so tired,'' said Jones after the race. That left Lochte to finish it off. But it also left Yannick Agnel, playing the role of Lezak in a 6-7 ½, 20-year-old body, to swim down Lochte. Lochte lost .25 seconds of the .55-lead in the first 50 meters, swimming hard. Too hard, U.S. head coach Gregg Troy, also Lochte's personal coach, would say later. "He doesn't have that much experience in the 100 free,'' said Troy. "He overswam the first 50. After the first 25 meters, I knew he was in trouble.'' (This, too, was symmetry: Bernard went out too hard on 2008.)
Lochte, who had qualified for Monday night's final in the 200-meter freestyle 82 minutes before the relay, said, "The 100 free, I don't really swim it that often. Sprinting definitely takes a lot out of you.''
Agnel is a prodigy of sorts, a 200-meter specialist. "He's always scared me, because he looks so good in the water,'' said U.S. assistant coach Eddie Reese. "He's what, 6-6 or 6-7, and he swims the 200 so he never gets tired. He's a beautiful swimmer.''
Agnel cut into Lochte's lead with every stroke, passing him inside the final 25 meters and pulling away to the wall. The final margin was .45 seconds, far more than the narrow, .08-second victory that Lezak gave Team USA four years ago. Agnel's final split was 46.74 seconds, exceptionally fast in the textile suit (post high-tech) era, where Magnusson has the world best of 47.49 seconds. Agnel's time was .41 seconds faster than any other swimmer in the race (Lezak, too, was the fastest man in the 2008 race); Phelps was second-fastest. Lochte's split was 47.74, slowest of the three-non-block starters in the race of the U.S., which was not unexpected.
As for Agnel: "You can't predict a 46,'' said Jones. "You just can't. That's an out-of-his-mind swim.'' Jones was asked if Agnel's swim was the "Lezak leg,'' for 2012, and said, "Yeah, I'd say 46.6 is a superman-level race, and Lezak had that Superman race in 2008.'' The only member of Sunday night's French relay who also swam the final in Beijing was second leg Fabien Gilot, who gave up more than half a second to Phelps, but still collected a gold medal instead of the silver from 2008. "I've swum against Fabien from time to time,'' said Jones. "I know he had a little bit of a sting from 2008. I'm happy for him. They swam an amazing race.''
There was just a hint of controversy at the outcome. In the morning's preliminary race, Matt Grevers of the U.S. swam the second-fastest leg in any heat, 47.54 seconds. It was thought that U.S. coaches might have placed Grevers on the final relay, possibly in place of Lochte. But on Sunday night, Grevers had only 29 minutes between his semifinal swim in the 200 backstroke and the final of the 4X100 relay. "You could do that in an NCAA meet or an Olympic Trials,'' said Reese. "Not in the Olympic Games [because of the high level of competition]. This morning [Grevers] had about 45 minutes [between races] and he was really good. But he would have had to swim a bit faster in that morning swim.''
Grevers said, before the relay final, "In any final, you have adrenaline to wash away all that lactic acid. [But] I have a feeling all those guys [in the relay] are going to beat my time.'' In fact, Lochte did not, but even if Grevers had matched his morning time, it wouldn't have been enough to hold off the French team. Perhaps Grevers would have swum faster; U.S. coaches were more willing to gamble on getting Lochte a lead.
"I don't think Ryan let anybody down, and neither does anybody else on this team,'' said Jones. "He put forth the effort and swam an extremely fast 100-meter freestyle. I know he's beating himself up.''
It is the nature of Olympic swimming, a rush of races for eight consecutive nights, that Phelps and Lochte will soon be on stage again. Lochte chases his second gold medal Monday night in the 200-meter freestyle; Phelps advanced in qualifying Monday morning in the 200-meter butterfly, an event in which he is favored, and will swim in the semifinals on Monday night. On Tuesday night in the 200 fly final, he could match the all-time Olympic record of 18 medals and on Thursday night he could surpass it.
But on Sunday night Phelps saw that perfection is slippery and history does not always care to repeat itself. A different place. A different race.