What are the ingredients to a timeless sports moment? What makes a single event stick in your mind forever? Non-sports people who somehow manage to live in modern America and not be a fan of at least one team or player might think that sports fanatics (like myself), who have spent countless hours of their life following sports, could not pinpoint singular moments in sports history that would stay with us forever. But, if you are reading this, you probably are like me. You can probably envision the exact play-by-play of a game from 4 years ago that you’ll remember 20 years from now. One might think that with the sometimes-superfluous amount of sports related media a fan consumes, specific moments or events may evade recall; however, I believe that under the perfect circumstances it’s quite the opposite. When a moment in sports contains all of the proper elements, it can make an indelible mark on the psyche of a fan that will change the way he will think about sports forever.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, the United States men’s 4×100 freestyle relay became, quite possibly, the most unforgettable sports moments I have ever watched.
The explanation behind that can be illustrated by breaking down the race and all of the stories surrounding it. That relay had everything the perfect sports moment should have:
- It happens on the biggest stage possible
- Your rooting interest is a clear underdog
- A clear villain
- A record breaking performance
- A comeback
- An unlikely hero shines
It happens on the biggest stage
Think Jordan in the Finals against Utah. For swimming, this is even more of a factor than traditional American sports. Sure, football has the Super Bowl, but it also has the playoffs. Swimming has the Olympics. That’s it. Name one other time that you watched swimming on television without lying or without being a swimmer. You can’t. For as little as swimming is consumed in between the Olympic Games, it thrives during them. Swimming holds the spotlight like only track-and-field and basketball can. The Olympics is the pinnacle for tons of different sports. It happens only once every four years, so each race is amplified because of the buildup after the layoff. Some athletes only get one chance in their prime to truly prove they are the best in the entire world. For swimming, the Olympics are as big as it gets.
Your rooting interest is a clear underdog
Think Boise State playing Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. If you listen to Dan and Rowdy break it down before the race starts he says, “How many times have I broke this down, Dan, in the past two weeks? Every time I do it, it comes out France.” The Americans were expected to achieve silver at best even by their own broadcasters. You can’t really blame them for thinking that either. The French had a slew of sprinters blossom at the same time, which is clearly the recipe for relay success. The French team’s first swimmer had the second fastest 50-meter time ever, and he was not even considered the best on their team. Alain Bernard, the French anchor, was arguably the best 100-meter freestyler in the world. The Americans had Cullen Jones swimming for them in the final after winning a spot in a qualifying race. It is strange to think that a team was about to go into a final without knowing exactly which four swimmers would be active.
A clear villain
Think the USSR men’s hockey team in Lake Placid. The French serve as a natural enemy to some Americans who still resent them for various political reasons. They weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to help the USA out during various conflicts in the past couple of decades. That residual animosity was compounded by the French teams unsolicited trash talk prior to the game. They claimed they would “smash” the American team during this relay, clearly growing tired of Phelps and company being in the spotlight. It was easy to hate the French this day. They asked for it. Those comments (while the Americans didn’t react to them pre-race) must have served as prototypical bulletin board, gas on the fire type material. Rule number one of trash talk is you better back it up. Those silly Frenchmen weren’t exactly Larry Bird in the pool.
A record breaking performance
Think Tiger in the ’97 Masters. The talk of Michael Phelps’ pursuit of the record for gold medals in a single Olympic Games was well documented, and he needed gold in every event he was scheduled for to make it happen. First, this was no ordinary record. This is an all-timer that required perfection in every single contest, day after day. Phelps was beating people who only had to focus on one race. Phelps had eight. A mark that, I believe, will never again be touched for as long as I’m around. Secondly, the Americans (as well as a few other teams) annihilated the world record for the 4×100 Freestyle Relay. That green line was chasing them almost the entire time. That being said, many expected Michael to do what he did; few expected Jason Lezak to do what he did, but we’ll get to that.
Think Red Sox over the Yankees after being down 3-0. Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale kept the United States in the thick of things, but when Cullen Jones was on the second half of his leg things started to look bleak for Team USA. People across the United States were slowly sliding back into their chairs as our announcers basically gave up on the team’s chances of stealing the gold. Just when every non-French person in the world prepared to turn away or walk into the next room, Jason Lezak entered the pool. The American anchor had his work cut out for him (in what would likely be his last Olympics). Trailing Bernard, Lezak rode the wake perfectly and slowly but surely started making up ground after the turn. Then, as if someone reached into the water and pulled the cord on a motor attached to Lezak’s back, he found some sort of dolphin-like extra gear and the race was on. With every stroke he closed on the Frenchman in the lane right next to him. One of my favorite calls of all time follows next: “HERE COMES LEZAK!!!” I get chills every time he out touches the team’s nemesis by mere hundredths of a second. “UNBELIEVABLE AT THE END! HE’S DONE IT! THE USA’S DONE IT!”
An unlikely hero shines
Think David Tyree. Our man Jason Lezak was older than the others, maybe just about to slip out of his prime. But, what did he do? He swam the fastest relay split in history. By a healthy margin too. With Phelps garnering almost all of the publicity (deservedly so to that point) Lezak stole the show with one of the greatest performances in the history of that sport. Some who thought the Americans could win expected Phelps to provide such a great cushion that the others would not have to dial up the races of their lives to claim victory. As the darkest hour of the race set in a few seconds into Lezak’s leg, he seemed to glide through the water with a purpose and determination unparalleled anywhere else in the pool. If you asked him today how he did it, I’m not sure even he could tell you.
With the Summer Olympic Games in London right around the corner, I thought this piece would be fitting. If you get the chance, take a moment to watch your countrymen live out their dreams in pursuit of gold. But maybe more importantly keep your eyes open for the next great sports moment that could change things forever because you never know when it will come. Phelps, Weber-Gale, Jones, and Lezak personify just one of the reasons sports are so great and continue to be universal phenomenon.