LONDON — In a turnaround that left Michael Phelps and his teammates in stunned silence Sunday night, the 400-meter freestyle relay gold medal that the U.S. had in its grasp slipped away in a late surge by the final French swimmer.
Ryan Lochte, swimming the anchor leg for the U.S., touched .45 of a second later than Yannick Agnel. The Russian team won bronze, ahead of the Australians, heavily favored going into the race with their self-described "weapons of mass destruction team."
It was redemption for Phelps, who had failed to medal in his first race on Saturday but was easily the fastest American in Sunday's relay. It was a reality check for Lochte, who was enjoying his trajectory over the rival who has long overshadowed him. And it was also payback, for the French, who in one of the most thrilling versions of this event, in the 2008 Games, lost their own race in the final strokes to the U.S. team.
"It is very frustrating that we lost but this is going to be something that's going to motivate us and motivate the guys that are going to step over in our shoes the next couple years and hopefully we do get this race back," Phelps said.
It was the first silver medal that Phelps has won in four Olympics and increased his overall medal count to 17, one behind the record held by gymnast Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union. He now has 14 golds, one silver and two bronze. He won't add to the total today because his next individual event, the 200 butterfly, swims preliminaries and semifinals today.
On Sunday, Phelps seemed to look back at the scoreboard several times as if in disbelief at the results — 3:09.93 for the French, 3:10.38 for the U.S.
Although he traditionally leads off, Phelps swam the second leg Sunday. Sprinter Nathan Adrian went first, and handed Phelps a lead. The Baltimore swimmer more than protected it, posting the fast split of the team, 47.15 seconds.
Phelps said he asked to be moved from leading off so he could follow Adrian.
"I'd been practicing going off Nathan's relay exchanges" in training camp, Phelps said. "Coach [Gregg] Troy asked me where I wanted to go, I said, 'Where's Nathan going to go, I want to go behind him.'
"Nathan swam a great opening leg, putting us out into open water. I just tried to give us even more open water," he said.
Phelps handed the lead off to Cullen Jones, a Beijing relay teammate, who left it in the hands of his good friend and Olympic Village roommate, Lochte.
But then, Lochte's path to emerge from Phelps' shadow hit a roadblock. Lochte already had swum the 200-meter freestyle semifinal earlier in the evening, and seemed to run out of steam as Agnel crept closer and closer until he touched the wall first.
"We were all screaming, screaming, 'Touch the wall,' to Lochte, Jones said. He did, but second, and remained in the water, as his teammates clustered around the starting block mostly in silence. Eventually Lochte emerged, and Phelps, who was receiving hugs and handshakes from the French swimmers, embraced him.
Lochte said he thinks he was a little over-excited swimming a non-familiar race — he generally races in the 200-meter category — and didn't pace himself.
"We had our best four guys and we went out there to win it and we came up short," Lochte said. "I'm kind of bummed because when we get on the blocks, we always want to win."
His teammates refused to criticize him. "I already told him," Jones said, "it's OK."
"It's a tough loss," Adrian said, before reversing himself and saying it wasn't necessarily that. "We frame it as we won a silver medal."
The relay capped an action-packed night on this, the second day of the Olympic swimming competition.
Setting an American record, Allison Schmitt of North Baltimore Aquatic Club won a silver medal swimming the 400-meter freestyle in 4:01.77 minutes. She hung tough with the winner, Camille Muffat, from start to finish, with the French swimmer setting an Olympic record with her 4:01.45 finish.
Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain, who barely made the final and swam from lane eight, won bronze — the host country's first swimming medal.
American Dana Vollmer set a new world record in the 100-meter butterfly final, swimming it in a scorching 55.98. She already had set a new Olympic record in Saturday's preliminaries with a 56.25-second swim.
And Brendan Hansen, who came back after a couple of years away from the sport, won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke.Japan'sKosuke Kitajima, who had a chance to become the first man to win three gold medals in the same event in three Olympics — something Phelps is also attempting — didn't medal.
But the 400 free relay was the marquee event. Who would swim for the U.S. was a tightly kept secret until shortly before the evening program got underway.
There were questions over whether Phelps, coming off of his 400 IM loss on Saturday, would swim despite the many times he has led off the relay.
Troy, though, had said such experience may be considered, "but the reality of the matter is there are some young people [who] swim real fast at this meet."
The U.S. was seeded second after the preliminary heats, after Australia which, at least in the morning lived up to their fearsome reputation.
Swimming in the preliminary for the U.S. was Jason Lezak, 36, the anchor who overtook the French and delivered the victory in the 2008 Games.
What a difference four years make, and, for that matter, when it comes to Phelps and Lochte, what a difference a day makes.
Lochte is fifth seeded going into in the 200-meter freestyle final, advancing without teammate Ricky Berens, who just missed the cut with a ninth-place finish. Berens also swam the preliminary of the 400-meter freestyle relay
Seventeen-year-old Missy Franklin advanced to the 100-meter backstroke final, without teammate Rachel Bootsma. Rebecca Soni and Breeja Larson made it into the finals of the 100-meter breaststroke. Matt Grevers, who also swam in the 400 free relay prelims, advanced to the 100-meter backstroke finals.