POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 30, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 2:32 a.m. HST, Jul 30, 2012
LONDON » Ryan Lochte grabbed at the edge of the pool, head down, staring at the water. Michael Phelps glared at the scoreboard, trying to digest the first silver medal of his Olympic career.
Right beside them, the French celebrated.
It was just like 2008 but with the roles reversed.
This time, it was France chasing down the United States -- and Lochte, no less -- to win another riveting relay at the Olympics.
"We got our revenge," French swimmer Clement Lefert said.
With Phelps looking much stronger than he did the night before, the Americans built a commanding lead over the first three legs of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay Sunday and never really had to worry about the defending world champions from Australia.
When Lochte dove into the water on the anchor leg, he was a half-body length ahead of the field and looking to add another gold to his dominating victory Saturday in the 400 individual medley.
Not so fast.
Or, should we say, not fast enough.
Yannick Agnel, playing the chaser role that Jason Lezak did for the Americans four years ago in this same event, sliced through the water and was right on Lochte's shoulder as they made the flip at the far end of the pool. With about 25 meters to go, they were stroke for stroke. But Lochte, who had already competed in 1,200 meters of racing over the first two days, simply didn't have enough left to hold off the towering, 20-year-old Frenchman, one of the sport's rising stars.
"I gave everything in the last 50 until he cracked," Agnel said. "In the last 10 meters, I saw that he was really cracking."
Agnel touched in 3 minutes, 9.93 seconds, having gone exactly 1 second faster than Lochte over the last two laps. Lochte and the Americans dropped to silver in 3:10.38, while Australia -- the favorite -- didn't even get a medal. Russia took the bronze in 3:11.41, edging the team from Down Under by 0.22.
Phelps settled for his 17th career medal and completed his collection of Olympic colors, adding a silver to his 14 golds and two bronzes. He also moved a step closer to becoming the most decorated Olympian ever, just one away from tying the mark for most career medals held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, and has five events to go.
"At least I'm in a medal today," Phelps said ruefully, referring to a fourth-place finish in his first race of the London Games.
But silver was a bitter disappointment for the Americans, who know how the French felt four years ago.
France had the lead in Beijing and its best sprinter, Alain Bernard, going out on the final leg. But Lezak swam the fastest relay leg in history, drafting Bernard along the lane rope and beating him by a scant 0.08 seconds to keep Phelps on track for his record eight gold medals.
That was one of the greatest races in Olympic history.
This one wasn't too shabby, either.
"I was just really excited and I think I overswam the first 50 and it hurt me for the last 50," Lochte said. "But we were able to get a medal, so I guess that's good."
Lochte's reaction was much different than the one he had the night before, when he finished more than 3 seconds ahead of the other medalists and more than 4 seconds ahead of Phelps in the 400 IM.
Even though Phelps got a medal this time, he didn't look much happier. He lingered at the edge of the pool right above Lochte, before going over to congratulate the French.
Phelps put up the fastest time among the American swimmers, covering the second 100 in 47.15 and showing he still intends to be a force at these games after his disappointing start. Nathan Adrian swam the leadoff leg in 47.89, going out faster than Australian star James "The Missile" Magnussen to give the U.S. an early lead. Cullen Jones was solid, too, in the third spot (47.60).
Lochte was handed a lead of more than a half-second, but he couldn't hold it. Agnel covered the final leg in 46.74, while Lochte labored home in 47.74.
Agnel's anchor wasn't quite as spectacular as Lezak's 46.06 at Beijing, but the French had no complaints.
"It's magical, simply magical," Agnel said. "We didn't have too much pressure. We did what we know how to do. Now, Olympic champions. It's brilliant."
They climbed to the top step of the podium to receive their medals, looking down at the Americans.
"It's tough," Phelps said. "We'd like to be on top, but Yannick has been swimming well all year and those guys put together a great relay. We tried to get ourselves into as much open water as we could. We had four great guys to get up there and swam as fast as we could. We were the ones that the coaches thought were going to have the best shot. We went out there and raced. That's all you can ask."
The U.S. coaches will surely come under scrutiny for going with Lochte, who had little experience in the 100 free and had never competed on this relay at the Olympics. But, coming off his dominant showing the first night, it's hard to argue about going with a swimmer who appeared to have the hottest hand of all.
"The 100 free, I don't really swim it. I haven't swum it in a long time," Lochte said. "You would think doing distance events, I wouldn't get tired. But sprinting takes a lot out of you."
In an interesting twist, Bernard will get a gold medal even though he didn't swim the final. Amaury Leveaux and Fabien Gilot took the first two legs, but Bernard will be rewarded, too, for taking part in the morning prelims. Maybe that will soothe some bitter feelings from four years ago.
Two more world records fell earlier in the evening.
American Dana Vollmer took down the mark in the 100 butterfly, then Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa broke another in the 100 breaststroke -- denying Japan's Kosuke Kitajima an Olympic threepeat.
Not even through the second night of the London Games, three world records had already been set.
This was quite a night for France, and not just because of the relay. Camille Muffat won a riveting 400 freestyle duel with American Allison Schmitt, the two nearly stroke for stroke the entire way. Muffat held on to win by about half a stroke with an Olympic-record time, while Schmitt settled for silver -- a sign of things to come.
Britain's Rebecca Adlington brought out the biggest cheer when she touched third, the home country's first swimming medal of the games.
Vollmer was third at the turn but powered to the wall for a time of 55.98, beating the record of 56.06 set by Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom at the 2009 world championships. Not bad for someone who didn't even qualify for the last Olympics, her career sidetracked by injuries and illness.
"I kept telling myself that my strength is my second 50," Vollmer said. "I kept really calm."
She dropped back her head when saw the time, then broke into a huge smile, slapped the water and pumped her fists.
"I'm on top of the world right now," said Vollmer, who qualified for Athens as a 16-year-old but was a disappointment in 2008. "I still know I can go faster."
Prepare for a 'Missile' launch
Missy "The Missile" Franklin, a 17-year-old, 6-foot-1-inch Californian with size-13 feet, competes in the first of her seven events: the 100 backstroke. In volleyball, Destinee Hooker and the U.S. face reigning champ Brazil.
Rain, rain go away
Thanks to rain, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams and 20 other women at the Olympics who have yet to complete a singles match could end up on court for six consecutive days if they reach the gold medal round.
Sunday showers at Wimbledon forced the postponement of 32 matches and the suspension of four others, meaning just one-quarter of the day's matches were completed. Rain delays often disrupt Wimbledon's two-week Grand Slam tournament, but the Olympic event at the All England Club is just nine days.
Play continued under the retractable roof on Centre Court, where the sound of pounding rain sometimes drowned out the thud of ball on racket.
Outside, the rain interrupted matches in mid-stride, forcing groundskeepers to pull the covers onto the courts, then pull them off again when the sun peeked out. Players tumbled onto the slippery grass, sometimes lying prone or squatting for a couple of seconds before climbing to their feet.
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