BEIJING — By a fingertip, Michael Phelps is still on course for eight gold medals. He can thank Jason Lezak for getting him No. 2.
The oldest man on the U.S. swimming team pulled off one of the great comebacks in Olympic history Monday morning, lunging to the wall just ahead of France's Alain Bernard in a race so fast it actually erased two world records.
Few sporting events live up the hype — this one exceeded it. The 32-year-old Lezak was nearly a body length behind the massive Bernard as they made the final turn, but the American hugged the lane rope, drafting off the Frenchman and stunningly overtaking him on the very last stroke.
Watching on deck, Phelps let out a resounding “Yeaaaaaah!” and thrust both arms toward the roof of the Water Cube. His quest to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals had survived what will probably be its toughest test.
The Americans shattered the world record set by their “B” team the previous evening in the preliminaries, touching with a time of 3 minutes, 8.24 seconds — nearly 4 full seconds below the 15-hour-old mark of 3:12.23.
“I was going nuts,” said Phelps, who swam the leadoff leg and then became the team's biggest cheerleader. “As soon as (Lezak) came off that last wall, I started going crazy. We're a team. We went in as a team, and now we're exiting as a team — and we're going out with that gold that we needed to get back.”
The Americans won the 400 free relay at seven straight Olympics, but watched the Australians and South Africans take gold at the last two Games.
“I've been on the last two relays where we come up short,” Lezak said. “To be honest with you, I got really tired of losing.”
Bernard was the world record holder in the 100, but he lost that mark as well. Australia's Eamon Sullivan broke the individual record by swimming the leadoff leg in 47.24 — ahead of Bernard's mark of 47.50.
While the Americans whooped it up on deck, Bernard clung to the wall, his head down. The swimmer who had talked confidently of beating the Americans was the last one to leave the pool.
The French were second in 3:08.32 — eight one-hundredths of a second behind. Australia took the bronze in 3:09.91. In fact, the top five all went below the record set Sunday.
Phelps advances in 200 free
Michael Phelps has advanced to the 200-meter freestyle finals.
The American qualified fourth-fastest in his Monday morning semifinal heat, touching in 1 minute, 46.28 seconds. Phelps lost his heat to teammate Peter Vanderkaay, whose time of 1:45.76 made him the leading qualifier for Tuesday morning's finals.
Park Tae-hwan of South Korea was second fastest, followed by Jean Basson of South Africa.
Phelps finished third in the 200 free four years ago in Athens, losing to Aussie rival Ian Thorpe and Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband in what was billed as the “Race of the Century.”
■ U.S. swimmer Katie Hoff won her second medal of the Olympics, taking a silver in the 400-meter freestyle. She touched the wall just behind Australia's Rebecca Adlington, who had a winning time of 4:03.22 to Hoff's 4:03.29.
■ A bit of a surprise was Christine Magnuson's silver in the women's 100 butterfly for the United States. She finished in 57.10 seconds, behind the favorite, Australia's Libby Trickett (56.73).
■ Brendan Hansen was favored to win gold, but he ended up without a medal in the 100-meter breaststroke.
“I had a bad day on the worst day to have one,” he said. “Normally, I win that race by a body length.”