RIO DE JANEIRO — Olympic swimming always ends well for Team USA. The final events are bring-the-house-down all-star races, the men’s and women’s 400-meter medley relays, in which each country enters a lineup made up of its fastest 100-meter backstroker, breaststroker, butterflier and freestyler. On top teams, every relay member is a medalist. The U.S. always wins the men’s race and takes gold or silver in the women’s event.
On Saturday night the medley relays capped the Rio Olympic swimming competition in spectacular and historic fashion. The American quartet of Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel demolished their rivals in the women’s race to earn the 1,000th gold medal won by the U.S. across all sports since the modern Games began in 1896. Moments later, in the final race of Michael Phelps’s career, a lineup of Ryan Murphy, Cody Miller, Phelps and Nathan Adrian pulled away on the final lap to take gold ahead of Great Britain by more than a second.
The men’s relay gold—number 1,001—boosted Team USA’s swimming medal haul in Rio to 33, the second-most ever behind its 34 at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where U.S. medal totals were boosted by a boycott by Russia and other Eastern bloc countries. The American team in Rio reached that total with help from two non-relay medals on Saturday night, a silver for Manuel behind Pernille Blume of Denmark in the 50-meter freestyle and a silver for Connor Jaeger behind Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri in the 1,500 free, only the third American medal in that event since 1984.
The star of the women’s relay was Vollmer, 28, the winner of seven medals (five of them gold) at three Games dating back to Athens, who dived in for her butterfly leg with the U.S. trailing by .23. She powered into the lead and touched the wall having put the Americans 1.1 seconds ahead. Manuel pulled away on the freestyle leg to give the U.S. a 1.87-second victory over runner-up Australia. Hello, 1,000. Only after the race finished were the U.S. team members given the news of the milestone.
"That's just so incredibly amazing and it really makes me think about all the generations of Olympic teams and athletes that I've watched and inspiration that I've had," Vollmer said. "I remember watching my first team in 1996 and seeing Kerri [Strug] in gymnastics and just understanding the dedication and the grit when she stood up to do that second vault. I just remember knowing that I wanted to do that and to represent that and we're here getting that 1000th medal for the US. It's just absolutely incredible."
Murphy, who had swept both backstroke titles in Rio, staked the U.S. to a big lead on the opening leg, breaking the world 100-back record in the process. His time of 51.94 erased Aaron Piersol’s 51.94 mark set in the fast-suit era. But breaststroker Miller lost the advantage, leaving it to Phelps and Adrian to save the U.S.
Phelps was more than half a second behind when he took off on his butterfly leg; he gave Adrian a .41 lead, which the 27-year-old six-time medalist quickly widened on his way to victory. Afterward, Phelps raised his arms to the crowd, which rose to its feet in a roaring tribute to the greatest Olympian in history (final totals: 28 medals, 23 of them gold).
The leadership of veterans like Phelps and Adrian had helped forge into medal-dominating form a young U.S. team on which 30 of the 45 members were first-time Olympians. Expectations of the team had been modest; reaching the 31 medals won by U.S. swimmers in both Beijing and London seemed a tall order. But the team developed a remarkable camaraderie that was the envy of every other team at the pool. The young swimmers pushed themselves to meet the high standards set by Phelps and others whom they had looked up to for years. That is the cycle in swimming: Success inspires success, and the U.S. is by far the most successful swimming nation in history. Even without Phelps, that will continue.