BEIJING -- Halfway through what might have been the greatest comeback swim in Olympic history, Jason Lezak peered through his goggles at the lane to his right and briefly abandoned hope.
"The thought really entered my mind for a split second," Lezak said. "There's no way."
Could you blame him? That thought already had been screaming through the minds of everyone in the National Aquatics Center plus several million Americans watching at home. It almost certainly was on the mind of one Michael Phelps, the leadoff swimmer in this 400-meter freestyle relay who had so much riding on Lezak's straining shoulders.
The anchor swimmer had gone into the pool well behind Frenchman Alain Bernard and, after busting it for 50 meters, had not appreciably closed the gap. The only comfort was that Bernard, who began this race as the world-record holder in the 100 freestyle, had not put the race out of reach -- something he all but guaranteed last week by declaring the French would "smash" the Americans in this event.
Now Bernard was a mere 50 meters from backing up the boast. Lezak was running out of water.
When he flipped and thrust off the wall, he was still half a body length behind. That's a country mile in a sprint race. The United States was going down and taking Phelps' quest for eight gold medals in a single Games with it.
But just as quickly as that glimmer of despair flitted through Lezak's mind, it was shoved aside by fresh determination.
No way met no quit.
"I changed," he said. "I thought, 'That's ridiculous. I'm at the Olympic Games, I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts, I'm going after it.'
"I just got a super charge."
What transpired during the final 50 meters was the stuff of Disney movies. It was the kind of thing that should land Lezak a co-starring role with Phelps on cereal boxes and network morning shows. And if Phelps does complete the great eight and pocket a $1 million Speedo bonus, he should cut a check for one-eighth of that total to the guy who kept the quest alive: Jason Lezak.
"His last 50 meters were absolutely unbelievable," Phelps said.
The 32-year-old Lezak, a three-time Olympian who has been an American anchorman nearly as long as Ted Koppel, steadily closed in on Bernard. Lezak hugged the lane line, drafting off Bernard like a NASCAR driver. It was a welcome change of tactics for a guy who is accustomed to being drafted upon by trailing swimmers.
With every powerful pull and explosive kick, Lezak gained inches. With 25 meters to go, the crowd volume picked up, as the impossible was upgraded to highly unlikely. With 10 meters to go, the crowd was roaring, as Lezak pushed it into the improbable range. At five meters, it suddenly was possible.
"I was pounding on the block, saying the f-word," admitted second-leg swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale. "I was saying, 'Come on!'
"It was an amazing thing to watch. I was saying to myself, 'If anybody in the world can pull this off, it's Jason.'"
In the final stroke, Lezak pulled it off. He thrust his right arm for the wall, desperation and determination meeting perfect timing. The lunge beat Bernard by an eye blink. Lezak somehow touched first, as the fans and his relay teammates both exploded.
The winning time: a world-record 3:08.24. Winning margin: eight-hundredths of a second. It was the closest 400-meter relay in Olympic history and the second-closest Olympic relay of any distance. (In 1984, the U.S. nipped Germany by four-hundredths of a second in the 800 free relay.)
And Lezak swam the fastest 100-meter relay split in world history, a shocking 46.06 seconds. His split was faster than Bernard's by 0.67 seconds. Smashing.
When you're the world-record holder but you cannot hold a lead in your specialty, that's not good. When that happens after you've talked smack, that's worse. At least it took a superhuman swim to beat Bernard.
Afterward I asked the French technical team director, Claude Fauquet, about Bernard's prediction.
"Well," Fauquet said, "I think he got it wrong."
I think so.
"We didn't react to it," Phelps said. "It just got us fired up."
Not nearly as fired up as they were after the race.
Phelps was screaming like a madman, his face contorting and muscles straining, as his quest careened from incredible domination Sunday in the 400 individual medley to incredible drama Monday. On paper, this was to be his toughest event. If another one turns up tougher, he'll lose.
"As you could see, I was pretty excited," Phelps said. "I was very emotional."
So was Weber-Gale, who won his first Olympic medal. The third relay member, Cullen Jones, won his first gold, as well -- and nearly fell in the pool while jumping up and down. And even Lezak was howling through the fatigue.
"We were all so excited," he said. "We were just yelling at each other."
This was all part of a grander plan for Phelps, but this relay held its own import to each of the participants. Especially for Lezak.
For years, he's been considered America's premier freestyle relay swimmer, but he also has swum on the only two Olympic 400 free relays the U.S. has ever lost. He was on the 2000 team that was nipped by Australia by 0.21 seconds and was the anchor in 2004 as the Americans finished third behind South Africa and the Netherlands.
For Mr. Relay, that was intolerable. So at a team meeting, Lezak pounded home the importance of returning America to the top of the podium in this event.
"I could see in his face the pain of losing like that," Weber-Gale said.
Lezak wanted his relay team to swim as a unit, not as four independent contractors brought together by nothing more than speed. He wanted to remind his teammates that being first on the heat sheet doesn't guarantee being first to the wall.
"People always step up and do things out of the ordinary at the Olympics," he said.
Now, after turning no way into no quit, Jason Lezak is the one who stepped out of the ordinary and into newfound Olympic glory.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.