Ryan Lochte finishes fourth as other swimmers steal the Olympic show

Ryan Lochte finished fourth in the 200-meter freestyle Monday, but it didn't diminish a fantastic night of swimming at the Olympics. In fact, it might have made them even better.  

Daniel Ochoa De Olza/AP
France's Yannick Agnel reacts to his gold medal win in the men's 200-meter freestyle swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London Monday.

Apparently, the world does not get NBC, because it didn't appear to get the message that this is supposed to be the Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte Olympics. 

Monday night at the Aquatics Centre was filled with no shortage of brilliant stories.

What about 17-year-old Missy Franklin, the native of Aurora, Colo., winning the first of what could be four individual medals in the 100-meter backstroke?

Or how about two swimmers that probably no Americans have ever heard of – countrymen Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman – pulling off the first American gold-silver sweep of the London swimming program in the men's 100-meter backstroke?   

Or Ritu Meilutyte, the 15-year-old Lithuanian who appeared bewildered on the pool deck, seemingly unable to grasp the fact that she had actually won the women's 100-meter breaststroke by the length of one of her green, red, and yellow-painted fingernails? 

Lochte left behind

But not one of them featured Mr. Lochte stroking through the pool like an aquatic Colossus, leaving only a trail of seared swimming caps in his wake. In fact, in Lochte's race, it would be criminal not to celebrate Yannick Agnel, the Frenchman who conjured up a repeat of his gold-medal performance Sunday to win the 200-meter freestyle Monday in a swim so fast it seemed to leave contrails in the East London water.

Lochte, beaten by Mr. Agnel Sunday, finished a fading fourth Monday. 

This is not an indictment of Lochte. Nor of Phelps for his own fourth-place finish Saturday. In the three years from Beijing to the 2011 world championships, those two had come to make us all believe that the impossible was not only possible, but to be expected. We set them on pedestals because there seemed nothing that they could not do. For that, and for the audacity of what they are attempting here, they should be celebrated. 

But at the same time, perhaps it is only wise for us now to appreciate the enormity of what they have done by recognizing that, as great as America's dynamic duo surely is, there is greatness elsewhere to be celebrated. Indeed, in realizing that – and enjoying it – their accomplishments become that much more astounding.

And there was plenty to enjoy Monday.

Starting with Ritu Meilutyte. Who is she, and did anyone outside Vilnius know how to spell her name before her eye-opening heats Sunday? Clearly, English is not her first language, or maybe even her third. Yet it seemed that her comments after the race captured the moment precisely.

"I can't believe it. It's too much for me. I really can't say anything. It was hard and difficult. At the moment I can't speak too much."    

You got the sense that, even in Lithuanian, she would have been a blathering wreck. Fifteen-year-olds aren't even allowed to compete in women's gymnastics at the Olympics. Meaning that all those tiny girls in leotards are wise old souls compared to Meilutyte.     

At 17, Missy Franklin is virtually a pensioner.

Franklin: Swimming for Aurora

Before the Games began, she said that every swim was for her hometown, hoping she could lessen even slightly the weight from the shooting rampage that killed 12. During the last 50 meters of the 100 backstroke, she looked like she had an entire town in the pool with her, pushing her forward.

Just 20 minutes before, she had swum in a semifinal for the 200-meter freestyle. "Missy showed she is incredibly tough out there," said Phelps. "You usually need around a half an hour to recover, so to have that fast turnaround was incredible."

That gives her two medals in two races – the gold Monday and a bronze from the 4x100 freestyle relay Saturday. If she can keep up the pace, she would be the first American woman to win seven medals in a single Olympic Games. 

Frenchman Agnel now has two medals as well: both gold, both over Lochte, and both so emphatic that organizers should stamp an exclamation mark on them.  

Swimmers talk about finding another gear when they need it. In the last 50 meters, Agnel found about three. There is no shame in saying that Lochte was utterly upstaged. After all, Lochte himself did the upstaging Saturday in the 400-meter individual medley. He will almost surely do it again before the lights go out at the Aquatics Centre.  

This time, it was Agnel's turn. 

The new French president was there to watch, and he too caught the right spirit. Beijing, it seemed, was the Americans' time, snatching an improbable victory from the French in the 4x100 relay. But Monday, the French got their just desserts. 

"Four years ago there was disappointment, and so now it is not in the spirit of revenge," said President François Hollande. "It shows you should never give up even if you fail on the first attempt."

Phelps and Lochte couldn't have said it better. 

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