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Bob Bukaty, Associated Press
France's Alain Bernard, right, is followed by United States' Jason Lezak on the final leg of the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay final during the swimming competitions in the National Aquatics Center at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

BEIJING — The pictures, the time difference (.08 seconds) and the French, they will all tell you that the difference between a spine-tingling gold and a buzz-kill silver in the men's 400 freestyle relay was a fingertip.

Jason Lezak would insist it's nowhere near that simple.

No way something as miniscule as a fingertip can fully capture how Lezak pulled off one of the greatest, most significant comebacks in swimming history.

In 46.06 seconds of an awe-inspiring anchor leg, Lezak went from doubting himself and accepting a third consecutive failure to instant legend of American swimming. He thought about settling for silver and bronze in the last two Olympic 400-meter relay races, and about his speech to teammates two days earlier about sweeping the relays. He went from trailing French powerhouse sprinter Alain Bernard to using the Frenchman's lead against him. He went from the verge of retirement to reviving his career and keeping Michael Phelps' record chase alive.

And when he touched the wall first — yes, by a fingertip — he had completed the most exhilarating, painful, satisfying, historical 46.06 seconds of his career.

"People always step up and do extraordinary things at the Olympics," Lezak said.

The 32-year-old was actually referring to his competitors in the last two Olympics when he said that. He was discussing the disappointment he felt when the favored Americans fell in 2000 and 2004 to teams that pulled off the extraordinary to upset the U.S.

When Lezak made the turn for the final 50 Monday morning, the picture in front of him looked too familiar. He was behind. Maybe too far behind.

"A lot of the times in the last Olympics, it just wasn't attainable," Lezak said of making up deficits past Olympics. "I just wasn't going to catch a guy that was two seconds ahead of me."

And just like then, Lezak began this final 50 meters with the same thought floating through his head. In fact, Lezak held a quick conversation with himself immediately after turning for the home stretch.

It went like this: "There's no way.' And then it changed to, 'This is ridiculous, it's the Olympics and I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts, I'm just going to out there and give it.'

"Honestly, within five seconds I was thinking all of these things. I just got like a super charge and took it from there."

Lezak charged off the wall and got as close to Bernard in lane four as he could, drafting off the leader in hopes of making up ground.

"This happened to me my whole career, people getting in my lane line and sucked off of me," he said. "So I figured this was the one opportunity of my whole career to do that."

But as the final 20 meters approached, it appeared there just wasn't enough pool left for Lezak to complete the comeback. Everyone watching assumed Phelps' quest for eight golds was over just three days into the event.

Well, not everyone.

"I just knew that last 15, 20 meters was going to be out of control," said Garret Weber-Gale, who swam the second leg of the race. "I just remember sitting there pounding on the block saying the F-word. I was just thinking to myself, if there is anyone on this team or in the world that was gonna do it, it was gonna be Jason."

Lezak's perfectly timed final stroke sent Weber-Gale and Phelps into a frenzy. Never mind that the team just destroyed their own world record by nearly four seconds, or that Phelps was still on pace for eight golds. The primal screams coming from the lane 5 starting blocks were pure exhilaration from a group that witnessed history.

"Jason is the most phenomenal closer I have ever seen in my life," said Cullen Jones, who ran the third leg of the race.

Lezak's 46.06 split was the fastest in the history of the event. His .04 reaction time was almost perfectly timed (.02 seconds would have been a disqualification because it is considered physically impossible to react that quickly).

"I don't think anyone in the world could've done better," Weber-Gale said.

And nobody has. Even the French swimmers, who were quoted as saying they would "smash" the Americans, were impressed with Lezak's finish.

And Phelps, though he didn't actually need to say "thank you," was the most grateful person in the Water Cube.

"He's 32, he's thinking about retiring," Jones said of Lezak. "I don't think he should. He's at the top of his game."