Olympics: In silver-medal US relay, Michael Phelps makes statement

The US had to settle for silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay, as a phenomenal French final leg caught Ryan Lochte. But in the race, Michael Phelps looked a little more like himself.

Michael Dalder/REUTERS
Cullen Jones, Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, and Michael Phelps (l. to r.) of the US pose with their silver medals in the men's 4x100 meter freestyle relay victory ceremony during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre.

Cast your mind back four years ago and recall the name Jason Lezak. Recall how Michael Phelps's quest for eight gold medals seemed to be doomed – how, even at the final turn of the 4x100 freestyle relay, the French seemed too far ahead for Lezak to come back.

Yet in an underwater escape worthy of Olympic lore and a tip of the swimming cap from Mr. Houdini himself, Lezak did it.

Sunday night in London, the Americans got Lezaked by the French.  

True, the stakes were lower. This time around, winning silver should suit the Americans just fine, considering the Aussies were strong favorites to win. And the American lead was not so seemingly insurmountable Sunday as the French lead was in Beijing. Yet French anchorman Yannick Agnel pulled out a positively Lezak-like lap – the fastest of the final by nearly a half a second – to reel in American golden boy Ryan Lochte, no less, and the French had a measure of revenge.

It capped a night in the Aquatics Centre that saw two world records broken and, if you looked closely enough, a small but potentially significant statement by Mr. Phelps.

Swimming the second leg of the American relay, Phelps was in awesome form. The 100 meter freestyle is by no means his best event, yet no one but Agnel swam his leg faster. Phelps tried to play this down, and wisely so. There are no medals for individual laps in a relay.

"The thing about the relay is that it's the whole race," so it can't be judged by individual laps, he said.

But perhaps more important: "I felt a lot better today than yesterday," he said, referring to his shock fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley. "I was able to put yesterday behind me."

In winning his first Olympic silver, Phelps moved within one medal of Larisa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast who holds the record for most Olympic medals with 18. Phelps could tie the record Tuesday in the 100-meter butterfly. 

Sunday's world records came from American Dana Vollmer in the 100-meter butterfly and South African Cameron van der Burgh in the 100-meter breaststroke. In winning, van der Burgh gave Japanese swimmer Kosuke Kitajima a dose of the treatment Phelps had received the night before.

Like Phelps, Kitajima came into the race trying to become the first male swimmer to win the same event at three consecutive Olympics. And like Phelps, despite enormous expectations, he didn't come close, finishing fifth. Both Kitajima and Phelps will have more opportunities to set the historic mark: Kitajima in the 200 breast, and Phelps in the 100 and 200 fly, as well as the 200 IM.   

Rounding out the medals on the night, Camille Muffat won gold in the women's 400-meter freestyle, with British favorite Rebecca Adlington taking bronze. Yet in many ways the most remarkable story of all was that of 15-year-old Lithuanian breaststroker Ritu Meilutyte, who swam fastest both in the morning heats and in the evening semifinals, where she set a new European women's record for the 100 meters.

The 100 breast final takes place Monday night, where Meilutyte can expect strong competition from Americans Rebecca Soni and Breeja Larson.  

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