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Reborn Michael Phelps plays pivotal role in U.S. 4x100 free relay gold

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, was back on top of the medal stand, turning in a vintage performance in the 4x100 freestyle relay to help the U.S. take gold.

RIO DE JANEIRO – One year and six days ago, a team of four American male swimmers contested the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the swimming world championships in a pool in Kazan, Russia. Six days later and more than 6,000 miles away in the summer heat of San Antonio, Michael Phelps, barred from competing at the worlds because of a drunk driving arrest in 2014, competed at the U.S. national championships, an event diminished by its overlap with the worlds and set in a municipal swimming stadium that took Phelps spiritually back to junior high school. “Back to when I was never in a bad mood,” he would say later. “When I just wanted to be at my best when I jumped into the pool.”

At that moment, they were all in the right place: A team of swimmers trying to win a gold medal for USA at the world championships and the greatest swimmer in history serving a humiliating penance. They were all in the right place, but they were not in the same place.

On Sunday night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio, they were in the same place. The team was comprised of different swimmers from those in Kazan: This time it was a veteran sprinter, Nathan Adrian, 27; and two first-time Olympians, 19-year-old Caeleb Dressel and 21-year-old Ryan Held. But the concept was very much the same: Try to win a gold medal for the United States. 

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And this time Phelps, 31 years old, was among them, restored to his very best after a cleansing rebirth that took him from the depths of public embarrassment and self-loathing to physical renewal, self-confidence and fatherhood. He swam the fastest 100-meter split of his long and remarkable career and pounded the starting block with his right fist as the crowd roared and Adrian swam home the final leg to give the U.S. the gold medal by .61 seconds over France.

Shortly afterward, Phelps sat on an interview rostrum in front of a small group of reporters and rubbed his medal with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. “It feels good to end my last 4x100 free relay with this around my neck,” he said. It is the 19th gold medal of Phelps’s remarkable career and his 23rd overall, records that might never be approached by any Olympian. It is also the first of his second career, the one that comes now after the drunk driving, the rehabilitation and the rediscovery of a life more worth living.

And there will likely be more medals to come: Phelps will swim three individual events and at least one more relay in Rio. His longtime coach, Bob Bowman (also the head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic team), said Sunday night “Michael usually works this way: When one thing is good, everything is pretty good. He doesn’t work in parts.” His next race is Monday afternoon, the 200-meter butterfly, in which he is the favorite.

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It was Dressel, second-place finisher in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha in late June, who led off the relay with a terrific start and a 48.10 leg that left the U.S in second place behind France. 

Phelps went second, just as he did in London four years ago, when the U.S. took silver. Phelps hadn’t swum the 100 meters at the Olympic Trials, hence there was speculation over the last several weeks that he might not be added to the relay. Bowman said the decision came after a 100-meter time trial last week during the team’s training camp at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Phelps swam 48.5 seconds, making him the fourth-fastest American in 2016. “His freestyle was on fire,” said Adrian. Bowman made the decision that Phelps would not only swim the 4x100-meter relay, but that he would swim at night, and not just in the morning heats.

Still, after the long wait and the emotional ride, Phelps was so excited as Dressel approached that he nearly false-started, with a reaction time of just .08 seconds, fastest of any swimmer in the race. “As I was on the block,” said Phelps, “I honestly thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest. I was so hyped tonight and so excited.” His three-month old son, Boomer, was pressed in a pack against the chest of his mother and Phelps’s fiancée, Nicole Johnson.

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Phelps’s start was solid and as he approached the 50-meter wall, he had taken the lead over Fabien Gilot of France. But then came his turn, a sensational flip and underwater kick that propelled him into a half-body length lead, essentially deciding the race in a matter of seconds. “That was maybe the best turn that’s ever been done,” said Bowman. “That was a serious turn.”

Entrusted with the lead after Phelps was Held, who had swum in the afternoon semifinal with Jimmy Feigen, Blake Pieroni  and 35-year-old 50-meter freestyle specialist Anthony Ervin. Held’s time was not as fast as Ervin’s, but Bowman selected Held to swim again at night. Younger legs, coming back so quickly. “Are you sure?” said a nervous Held. Later Held said, “Coach Bowman told me, and I held it together, but then I called my mom and I bawled for about five minutes straight.”

Held kept the U.S. in the lead and then Adrian swam 46.97 seconds, the fastest of any racer in the event. The victory was dominant, nearly a blowout in swimming terms. “Every American swimmer dreams of getting up there in the 4x100 free relay,” said Adrian, “and winning a gold medal.”

The 4x100-meter free relay is a frantic piece of team swimming purity–four men racing at high speed in the sport’s foundation stroke, the pool awash in foamy turbulence that abates three times for just an instant as the next leg pushes off the blocks and hangs, suspended in the air. It is also the Alpha Dog moment in water. Our Country is faster than Your Country.

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American men once owned this relay. It was added to the Olympic swimming program in 1964 and the U.S. won it seven consecutive times on three different continents. The world championships were begun in 1985 and Americans took 4x100 freestyle gold in 11 of the first 13 renewals. But when the horn sounded to begin the last of four semifinal races last summer in Kazan, the trend had long been moving another direction: Bronze at the 2011 worlds, silver at the 2012 Olympics, silver at the 2013 worlds.

So it is fitting that Phelps returned to the medal stand in this event. It has always been a pivotal race on Phelps’s program, for much of his career coming one night after the grueling 400-meter individual medley and setting the stage for yet another medal haul. For the U.S. team, both the women’s (in which Team USA won a sliver medal behind Australia Saturday night in Rio) and men’s 4x100 free is the first relay, the first chance to gather some collective red, white and blue mojo that might carry into a long, intense week.

The 4x100 free relay was the race in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics where his pursuit of a record eight gold medals was rescued by his 10-year-older teammate Jason Lezak’s miracle anchor swim, one of the most stunning performances in U.S. Olympic swimming history. On that day, Phelps went off the block in 47.51 seconds, at the time an American 100-meter freestyle record (only leadoff legs are eligible for record consideration, because it’s the only leg where swimmers react to a starter’s signal), although he trailed Australian Eamon Sullivan’s world record split of 47.24. A year later at the 2009 worlds, Phelps led off in 47.76 and anchor Adrian, anchoring for the first time in his international career, came home in 46.79 to keep keep Russia and growing world power France at bay.

It would be that last U.S. gold in the 4x100 until Sunday night. Phelps led off the relay at the 2011 worlds, where Australia and France went one-two and USA took the bronze. At the 2012 Olympics, coaches made the Adrian the leadoff leg, to give the U.S. open water and an undertrained Phelps swam a brilliant 47.15 second leg from swim memory. But on that night, it was France’s Yannick Agnel who swam the Lezak leg, swimming down Ryan Lochte on the anchor. Phelps was “retired” when the U.S. took silver in 2013 and far away a year ago. 

So past midnight in Brazil Sunday, Phelps returned to the top platform of the medal stand for the first time in four years. He is comfortable there, as he should be. No human has stood there more often. This time his child was present. As the anthem played and the American flag was raised toward the ceiling, Held began to cry and Phelps cradled his head against his shoulder. Dressel would remain stoic until just after the chords ended and then he, too, would begin to weep.

“I told those guys,” said Phelps. “It’s okay to sing and it’s okay to cry.” And who would know better?