Even as familiar stars such as Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps piled up medals, Team USA faced new challengers from all corners of the globe
This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2012 issue
IT SEEMED a brilliant plot. To counter the blazing speed and avoid the wake of 20-year-old star James (the Missile) Magnussen, Australia's leadoff swimmer in the men's Olympic 4 √ó 100-meter freestyle relay on Sunday, U.S. coaches packed the front of their team's lineup with their strongest sprinters: Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones. And for three quarters of the race, the plan worked beautifully. When U.S. anchor Ryan Lochte hit the water, he had a lead of more than half a second on France and almost a full second on the favored Australians.
But the scheme had a small flaw: It hadn't accounted for the closing speed of another 20-year-old missile. Lochte took his leg out too fast and faded in the stretch as France's 6'8" Yannick Agnel—like Magnussen a first-time Olympian—torpedoed past him and touched the wall .45 of a second ahead in 3:09.93. With his sizzling split of 46.74 seconds, Agnel had turned the tables on Team USA, which had overtaken France in the same way in the same event four years earlier in Beijing on Jason Lezak's mind-bending final leg, the performance that saved Phelps's bid for eight gold medals.
As the French celebrated on the pool deck in London, Lochte, scarcely 24 hours removed from a dominant 400 individual medley victory that had seemingly confirmed his position as the world's greatest swimmer—and left Phelps stunned in fourth place—stared at the water, another superstar temporarily humbled.
IT WAS quickly apparent in London that the swimming competition, set under a sweeping, English-riding-saddle-shaped roof, wouldn't be about the dominance of one man or even two men, despite the pre-Games buzz about Phelps and Lochte. In Beijing the spotlight had focused so narrowly on Phelps's unprecedented eight-gold haul that it cast into the shadows the rise of other countries' swimmers. In London the new reality would be clearer: America remains the world's No. 1 swimming power, but the days of Phelps-like hegemony are over.
As competition unfolded at the Aquatics Centre, the spotlight shone on a cluster of stars. The U.S. still had its share. Phelps, in his fourth and likely final Games, was on track to pass Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's career record of 18 total medals. Dana Vollmer, putting behind her a history of injury, illness and disappointment (she missed making the team for Beijing), won the 100 butterfly and became the first woman to break 56 seconds in the event. Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old who was hoping to become the first female swimmer to win seven medals at one Olympics, started her quest with a bronze in the 4 √ó 100-free relay and a gold in the 100 backstroke. Franklin's victory kicked off a Monday-night U.S. rush in which Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman went 1--2 in the 100 back and Rebecca Soni took silver in the 100 breast.
And then there was Lochte, perhaps the biggest media draw before the Games. Long the runner-up to Phelps in the individual medleys, he had been regularly beating his training-camp spades partner since 2010 and had won the 200 and 400 IMs and the 200 freestyle at the '11 worlds. "This is my year," Lochte would say, almost as a mantra. "I know it and I feel it."
His domination of the 400 IM on the Games' first day was, in fact, less startling than Phelps's struggles in that race. Phelps, the two-time Olympic champion, had only recently returned to the brutally demanding event after vowing four years ago never to swim it again. In London he lollygagged through the morning prelims, earning the eighth and final spot by just .07 of a second. In the final he fell behind on the opening butterfly leg—usually a Phelps strength—and labored as Lochte opened a yawning gap on the field. While Brazil's Thiago Pereira took second place, almost four seconds behind Lochte's 4:05.18 (the second-fastest time in history), Phelps touched fourth, behind 17-year-old bronze medalist Kosuke Hagino of Japan.
It was the first time Phelps had failed to crack the top three in an Olympic race since he finished fifth in the 200 butterfly in Sydney as a 15-year-old. The first swimmer to climb out of the pool afterward, Phelps walked slowly away from it, never looking back. "It's weird not having Michael next to me on the medal stand," said Lochte later.
Neither Phelps nor his coach, Bob Bowman, had any explanation for his sluggishness. "Just a crappy race," said Phelps. "They swam a better race than me, swam a smarter race than me and were more prepared."
Phelps bounced back in the 4 √ó 100 free relay, swimming the second leg in a team-leading split of 47.15. But this time, the game-saving hero was on another team. "We can't complain about a silver," said Phelps. "This is my first silver."
The 4 √ó 100-free-relay medal gave him career medal 17, just one shy of Latynina's mark. Numbers at this point aren't needed to confirm his greatness, however. Even before London, Phelps already was the Games' most gilded athlete, with 14 golds, five more than runners-up Latynina, Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi and Mark Spitz.
If anything, the events in London—Lochte's struggles especially—underscored how extraordinary Phelps's performances were in Beijing. "I've thought back to a lot of those memories recently," Phelps said late Sunday night. "In 2008 everything was in the perfect place for me. I was prepared—physically, mentally, emotionally. Everything was perfect."
Perfection in multiple events seemed out of reach in London. Newcomers overturned favorites and returning champions again and again. Beijing double gold medalist Rebecca Adlington, Great Britain's best hope in swimming, barely made the final of the 400 free and declared herself "happy" to have grabbed a bronze behind Camille Muffat of France and Allison Schmitt of the U.S. Three-time Olympian Natalie Coughlin, denied a shot at a third straight 100-backstroke gold after a poor showing at U.S. trials, was left off the evening swim of her only event, the 4 √ó 100 free relay, and had to watch as younger swimmers won her a 12th Olympic medal, a bronze, tying her with fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most by a female U.S. Olympian.
Some of the surprises were jaw-dropping. In the women's 100 breaststroke, Ruta Meilutyte, a little-known 15-year-old from Lithuania, edged Soni, the world champion and U.S. favorite, by .08 of a second to win her country's first Olympic swimming medal. In the men's 100 breast, two-time defending champ Kosuke Kitajima of Japan was treated just as rudely, finishing fifth, far behind Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa, who touched first in a world record of 58.46 seconds to become the first South African male to win an individual swimming gold. After jumping onto the lane line in celebration, van der Burgh reclined back as if he were settling into a beach chair and cupped his hands behind his head. Smiling, he looked upward and thought of his friend and rival Alexander Dale Oen, the 100 breaststroke world champion from Norway who died of sudden cardiac arrest in April. "I know he was probably laughing down at me, thinking, How can you go that time?" said van der Burgh.
One could ask the same thing of 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, who in the women's 400 IM became the first female swimmer to break a world record since high-buoyancy suits became illegal in 2010. Ye ran down favorite Elizabeth Beisel of the U.S. with an eyebrow-raising final 100-freestyle split of 58.68, just .03 slower than Lochte's final split in the men's 400 IM. Ye covered the last 50 meters in 28.93, .17 of a second faster than Lochte did.
Just 20 minutes before Ye's victory, teammate Sun Yang, 20, who broke Grant Hackett's 11-year-old 1,500-free world record last summer, had crushed 2008 gold medalist Park Tae-hwan of South Korea in the 400 free by almost two seconds. Sun, too, celebrated by hopping atop the lane line, screaming and pounding the water with clenched fists.
IN MONDAY night's loaded 200-freestyle final, Lochte faced both a showdown with Sun and Park and a rematch with his relay nemesis, Agnel. The Frenchman, like Sun, is a rangy 20-year-old with a beautiful freestyle stroke and a fierce competitive streak. "He has always scared me," said U.S. assistant coach Eddie Reese of Agnel. "He looks so good in the water."
Agnel dominated the 200. He beat Park and Sun, who tied for second, by nearly two seconds. Lochte finished fourth. "The rest of the world is right even with us," said Reese. "They are all over us."
Phelps may yet prove to be the U.S.'s greatest asset in fending off this wave of international challengers. He has almost single-handedly boosted the appeal of and financial support for American swimming and begun to attract more talented young athletes to the sport. When he turned pro in 2001, Phelps made it his mission to elevate the profile of swimming—"He wanted to see it on SportsCenter," says his agent, Peter Carlisle—and as he takes his final laps in London, he can look back with satisfaction on his impact. At the U.S. trials in Omaha in June, 11,000 to 14,000 people jammed the CenturyLink Center every night, three times as many as watched the 2000 trials, Phelps's first. NBC broadcast this year's trial finals live for eight nights and was rewarded with great ratings; swimming won its time slot five times and snagged the highest ratings in prime time twice.
"People care about it more, largely because of Michael's involvement," says Bowman. "What that translates into is more public awareness, which translates into more participation."
In a typical post-Olympic year USA Swimming membership has increased between 5% and 7%; after Phelps's performance in Beijing the number ballooned to 11.3%. "That's a four- to five-percent jump directly attributable to Michael Phelps," says USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus. Boys, who made up just 39% of the membership 10 years ago, now make up 43%. At Phelps's North Baltimore club, membership is split almost evenly between boys and girls. "That's unheard of," says Bowman. "When Michael started swimming it was probably 80-20 girls to boys. That's a direct effect of Michael."
Lochte's father, Steve has seen a similar impact at the Daytona Beach club where he coaches. "I've seen a lot more boys willing to come out for swimming because of what Michael did in Beijing," he says. "Instead of going out for football, they go out for swimming because one of the world's greatest athletes is a swimmer."
Wielgus had an aha! moment during the Vancouver Olympics when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones approached him at an NBC function, poked him in the chest and asked, "Are you the swimming guy? Because I want to put a pool in Cowboy Stadium."
"He was talking about the 2016 Olympic trials," says Wielgus, who is entertaining bids from 16 potential host cities. "Whether or not that happens is almost irrelevant. For me, just the idea was yeah! Yeah!"
Of course, the driving force behind swimming's popularity in the U.S. will be long retired by 2016. The tide of international challengers will still be rising. Yet Wielgus remains optimistic as he looks ahead to the post-Phelps era. "I think the next four years are going to be the best four years we've ever had," he says. "What people outside the swimming community don't see is all the talent coming up."
One glance at the medal stand in London suggests another conclusion as well: It can't arrive too soon.
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