LONDON -- Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps were supposed to be focusing on their looming 200 IM semifinal heat, but they couldn't pull their eyes from a race on the ready room TV. Teammate Nathan Adrian, often overlooked in pre-Games discussion of potential Olympic champions, was taking heavy favorite James "the Missile" Magnussen of Australia down to the wire in the 100 freestyle final. As the two sprinters churned through the final 10 meters, Lochte and Phelps roared. On the final stroke Adrian lunged, hitting the wall in 47.52, just .01 seconds ahead of Magnussen. "We went nuts," said Lochte. "We were screaming and everything. It was one of the greatest finishes. We were so happy for him."
Adrian, who tried to keep pressure off himself by imagining that Wednesday's 100 free was a heat rather than an Olympic final, looked up at the scoreboard and searched for a number by his name. Not quite believing what he saw, he looked again, and then covered his eyes in disbelief. "I thought I saw the 'one' -- yeah, I won the heat, awesome!" he says. "But then I was like, wait a minute, Did I really? Then I had to look up again; I didn't want to be that guy who was celebrating when he got eighth. That's when I looked up and it hit me like a ton of bricks."
Adrian's victory wasn't just a first individual Olympic medal for him -- he won a gold swimming the preliminaries of 4x100 free relay in Beijing -- it was the first men's 100 free gold medal won by American since Matt Biondi, like Adrian a Cal grad, won it at the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea. And it was just the first of several great performances on Wednesday by U.S. swimmers not named Lochte or Phelps.
While Adrian's win will be considered an upset, it wasn't a complete surprise. It was the second time this week that Adrian had bested Magnussen, the world champion who had been considered nearly unbeatable after he had notched a 47.10, the fastest non-high-tech suit time in history, at the Australian trials in March. But Magnussen's aura of invincibility took a blow during the 4x100 relay, in which the Australian team had been the prohibitive favorite. Facing Magnussen in the leadoff leg, Adrian beat him to the wall by a cushy .24 seconds. The Australians never recovered, fading to fourth by the end of the race. (The U.S. finished second, behind France.) Magnussen, who called that loss "shattering", was doubly undone after the 100 free. "Having such a successful young career, I felt pretty much bulletproof coming into these Olympics," he said after the race. "It's very humbling. As my coach said earlier in the week, it's a pretty tough time to learn that you're human."
Not that it's much consolation, but Magnussen is partly responsible for Adrian's blossoming as a sprinter. That 47.10, said Adrian, "really motivated, I hope, everybody. It really stepped my training up a notch."
Adrian can also thank the Missile for a changed race strategy. Wary of his tendency to go out fast and fade late in the 100 free, Adrian held back early this time, something he learned from watching Magnussen at Worlds. "This time I really conserved some energy that first 50 and didn't go out as fast as I could," said Adrian. "I had a little bit in me for the last 10 meters."
Adrian's fingernail margin wasn't the only U.S. triumph to come at the expense of the Aussies on Wednesday night. In the women's 4x200 free relay, Missy Franklin, swimming in her fourth of seven events, led off, touching in third. After Dana Vollmer and Shannon Vreeland took their turns, the U.S. was half a second behind Australia. Then anchor Allison Schmitt, the winner of the 200 free on Tuesday, went to work. Pacing herself wisely, she stayed near Australia's Alicia Coutts and didn't make her move until the final 100, pulling ahead to touch in an Olympic record of 7:42.92, one and half seconds ahead of Australia and four and half seconds ahead of third-place France. "I knew (Schmitt) was going to pull off something amazing, and the rest of us had to be at least even with everyone else," said Vollmer.
Remarkably, it was the first Olympic relay victory for the American women since they won the 4x200 free relay in Athens eight years ago. "It's really nice to get that back and hear the national anthem in a relay situation," said head women's coach Teri McKeever.
In another milestone for the women's team, Rebecca Soni, who had been upset in the 100 breaststroke earlier in the week, stunned herself in the 200 breaststroke semifinals by setting a world record of 2:20.00. "I was very surprised," she said. "I wish it could have been about one one-hundredths faster but I am so excited. It's been about four years since I swam close to that fast."
Victories in the men's 100 freestyle and a women's relay had also been a long time coming. Little more than halfway through the meet, Phelps, who still has shots at three more medals, thought the U.S. was just getting on a roll. "We've had a great week so far," he said. "We're just starting to pick up more and more steam."