It wasn't the greatest complete relay I've ever seen. That would be the Madison West 200 IM relay at the Wisconsin Division I high school state championships in 1997, where my older brother swam the breast, with my future co-captain Dan Tereba bringing it home. That race catapulted our team to the state championship, West's last as far as I know. And I can't say it was the best relay leg ever for certain. I haven't been watching swimming for long enough. But Jason Lezak's final leg of last night's 400 freestyle relay was easily the best single relay leg I've ever witnessed in any sport.
Lezak entered the water (his start is above), with the US trailing by about 2/3 of a body length. The French, the pre-race favorites, led at that point and with the world record-holder Alain Bernard anchoring the relay the outcome looked set. (To be completely correct, at that point Bernard was no longer the world record holder since his world record was broken during the race by the Australian lead-off swimmer.) After an initial burst, Lezak actually lost ground to Bernard. At the turn, he looked to be a full body length behind. Even if Lezak was trying to draft off of Bernard, he was so far back that the race seemed to be over. Afterwards, Lezak himself said, "I'm not going to lie. When I flipped at the 50, it really crossed my mind for a split second that there was no way. Then I changed. And I said, 'You know what, that's ridiculous at the Olympics. I'm here for the United States of America. I don't care how bad it hurts or whatever.' ... Honestly in five seconds I was thinking all these things. I got like a supercharge and took it from there."" Then Lezak, with his powerful, slower paced turnover, just kept pounding at the water, pulling himself up to Bernard over the course of the last 50 meters, only drawing even with him just inside the flags, and barely touching the Frenchman out, by .08 seconds. Gold Medal for the US.
Now, yes, Lezak's historic swim kept Michael Phelps's highly publicized goal of winning 8 gold medals in one Olympics alive. But I think it's better seen as what it was--- the fastest free relay leg in history, swum by a 32-year-old, self-coached, US team captain in his last Olympics. Undoubtedly, this was the best race of Lezak's life. A career defining moment. Remarkable.
If you missed it or you want to rewatch it, see here. (Unfortunately, there's what sounds like Chinese commentary. Lezak's leg begins around 4:45.)