After weeks of bluster, world record holder Alain Bernard had a chance to back up his bravado in the pool this morning in Beijing. Instead, the Frenchman collapsed in the final meters of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, enabling the United States to win one of the most thrilling swimming races in Olympic history. Did Bernard choke? Yes, but that's not the only reason he lost.
When he dove into the pool as the anchor of France's 4x100-meter relay team, Bernard had a .60 second lead over American Jason Lezak. Even though the 32-year old Lezak is one of the best sprint freestylers in the world, the .60 lead held by Bernard should have been insurmountable. Bernard held the world record in the event. A world record holder with a sizable lead... you do the math. So what happened?
There were two main factors in the American's come-from-behind victory. First, Jason Lezak swam the fastest relay leg of all-time. This is not to be overlooked or underappreciated. Without Lezak (and, for that matter, Michael Phelps, Garett Weber-Gale and Cullen Jones), Bernard would have been so far ahead he couldn't have given up the lead even if he was Greg Norman.
Secondly, Bernard swam a poor mental race. Call it whatever you'd like, but it had all the hallmarks of a choke. It's impossible to know whether Bernard was nervous or overconfident during the race, but it's safe to say he was foolish. After swimming the fastest first 50 meters of any of the 32 competitors, Bernard came back with one of the slowest. By the 70-meter mark, he had slowed considerably. At that point, Lezak began catching up, and Bernard made mistake #2. Instead of keeping a steady stroke, Bernard increased his turnover, which caused him to break his rhythm and led to the tightness that Rowdy Gaines described on NBC's broadcast.
To his credit, Bernard was gracious in defeat, clapping when the Americans received their gold medals and shaking the hand of Michael Phelps after the ceremony. Or maybe that was just his way of surrendering. The French are pretty good at that one too.
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