BEIJING (Reuters) - Michael Phelps dodged a bullet train of French relay swimmers to collect his second Beijing gold medal and stay on course for an unprecedented eight golds on an incredible record-breaking day at the Water Cube on Monday.
Phelps joined his American team mates Garret Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak to smash the 4x100 metres freestyle relay after a breathtaking struggle with France that threatened to derail his chances of breaking Mark Spitz's record of seven golds at a single Olympics.
France looked to have sealed the race when former world record holder Alain Bernard led by half a body length with one lap to go.
But Lezak overhauled the flying Frenchman on the very last stroke to win the gold in three minutes 08.24 seconds and carve nearly four seconds off the previous record of 3:12.23 set the night before by the American second-string team in the heats.
"It could have stopped right then and there," U.S. head men's coach Eddie Reese said. "I've never seen anything like that before.
"When you put the record holder (Bernard) on the end of your relay and you go in behind him, your chances are slim and none.
"Running down somebody who holds the world record and is on their game is incredible."
In an astonishing race, Eamon Sullivan also claimed the individual world record when he led the Australian team off in 47.24, wiping 0.26 off Bernard's record. The Australians finished third. The first five teams all dipped under the old record, while sixth-placed Canada finished in 3:12.26.
"Experience prevailed over talent today, and I regret that," said France's Frederick Bousquet. "We're all a bit disappointed but we're still second in an Olympic relay.
"Life goes on. We believed in victory until the very end, it was very close."
Japan's Kosuke Kitajima broke the world record to win the men's 100 breaststroke gold while Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry erased Natalie Coughlin's world record in the semi-finals of the 100 backstroke.
Kitajima, who won both 100 and 200 golds in Athens in 2004, touched in 58.91 to slice 0.22 off the world mark set by American Brendan Hansen two years ago.
Norway's Alexander Dale Oen won his country's first swimming medal with silver while France's Hugues Duboscq was third.
"It was perfect. It was the ideal race. I've been looking forward for these Olympics for so long," said Kitajima.
Australia's Libby Trickett won the 100 butterfly final while Rebecca Adlington scored a surprise win in the 400 metres freestyle to provide Britain with their first Olympic swimming champion in 20 years and the first female since Rome in 1960.
Trickett claimed her first individual Olympic title in 56.73 ahead of American Christine Magnuson and Australia's Jessicah Schipper.
Adlington stormed home on the last lap to overhaul American Katie Hoff and win the gold in 4:03.22 seconds. Hoff held on to take the silver while Briton Joanne Jackson finished third.
Although not a specialist sprinter, Phelps led off in 47.51 but said he owed his gold to Lezak, whose final split was a sizzling 46.06 but does not count as a record because he had a flying start.
"Jason finished that race better than we could even ask for," Phelps said. "I was so fired up, down the last 50 I knew it was going to be a really close race. Jason's last 10-15 metres were incredible.
"After that I was pretty excited, I lost my voice. I was definitely pretty emotional."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)