BEIJING - It wasn't official until the final few meters, when anchorman Jason Lezak held off Australia's Eamon Sullivan by seven-10ths of a second. But finally, after nine days, 17 races, and a record eight gold medals, Michael Phelps got to exhale today.
"It's been nothing but an uphill roller coaster ride, and it's been nothing but fun," declared the world's greatest swimmer, after he and his fellow Americans had shattered the world record in the 4 x 100-meter medley relay with a 3-minutes-29.34-seconds clocking and enabled Phelps to expunge countryman Mark Spitz's 1972 record for most golds at one Games.
Phelps's final victory capped a historic day for the Americans, who got a pair of silver medals from 41-year-old Dara Torres, who just missed winning the 50 freestyle in an American-record 24.07 and who anchored the US women to a second-place finish behind the Australians, who set a world record (3:52.69) in the 4 x 100 medley relay.
"I was just glad to come here and win three medals," said Torres, who'd taken seven years off after the Sydney Games but came back to equal former teammate Jenny Thompson's record of 12 career medals by a US female swimmer. "To find that it ties Jenny is an awesome feat."
For a moment, it seemed that Torres might have won the 50 for her first individual gold, but Germany's Britta Steffen flashed her hand in front and touched out Torres by a hundredth of a second. "I'm competitive, I wanted to win the gold," said Torres, who already was the oldest female swimming medalist in history when she won five in 2000. "I gave it my best shot. Maybe I shouldn't have filed my nails last night."
Still, it was a career-best individual Olympic performance for Torres, who won a trio of bronzes in 2000, and the best US finish in the event since Amy Van Dyken won gold in 1996. In third was Australia's Cate Campbell, who was born in 1992, when Torres was swimming in her third Games.
The unlikely achievements submitted by Phelps, 23, and Torres overshadowed one of the greatest upsets in Olympic swimming history as Tunisia's Oussama Mellouli held off Australian two-time champion Grant Hackett in the 1,500-meter freestyle to give his country its first-ever swimming medal.
"It's the redemption I wanted, and I got it," said Mellouli, a 24-year-old USC graduate who didn't make the final four years ago but beat Hackett by less than seven-10ths of a second in 14:40.84 in the closest finish in the event in Olympic history. It was a painful defeat for the 28-year-old Hackett, who was bidding to become the first man to win the event three times. "It's disappointing, but so close," he said. "To get second is great, but three in a row would have been nice."
After his astounding odyssey, which had captured the world's attention, second place in the meet finale would have been a massive letdown for Phelps. The medley relay figured to be the easiest of his eight gold medals, since the US had never come close to losing the event at the Games and set the world record in Athens (3:30.68) using three of the same four swimmers.
Still, the Americans were taking nothing for granted after last year's world meet, in which they were disqualified in the prelims when Ian Crocker false-started the fly leg and cost Phelps a record eight golds. This time, they'd qualified first, with Crocker again swimming fly.
Yet the final was yet another nail-biter for Phelps, who jumped into the water behind Japan and Australia on the butterfly leg after breaststroker Brendan Hansen had given up the lead that backstroker Aaron Peirsol had built on the opener.
Phelps, who'd won his seventh gold medal in the 100 fly yesterday with a miracle victory on his final stroke, took the lead back with a blistering 50.15, but the Yanks were just a quarter of a second ahead of the Japanese and the Aussies were ending with Sullivan, the world record-holder.
So once again it came down to Lezak, whose heroic anchor dash had given the US its come-from-behind win over France in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay. Lezak, who had the meet of his life at 32, brought it home in 46.76 and Phelps had made history.
"I wanted to do something that nobody ever did before," said Phelps, who now has won 14 gold medals after claiming six in Athens. "But without the help from my relay teammates, this was impossible."
That had been his theme when the man from Baltimore arrived here for his date with destiny. "Nothing is impossible," Phelps said. "There were so many people saying it couldn't be done. All it takes is imagination."