Michael Phelps who? Nathan Adrian leads US on night for the underdogs.

On a night when Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Missy Franklin had no individual races, Nathan Adrian led the American undercard to a stunning night at the London Olympics.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Nathan Adrian (l.) reacts after winning gold in the men's 100-meter freestyle alongside silver medal winner James Magnussen of Australia at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London Wednesday. (Michael Phelps is not in this picture.)

Nathan Adrian is officially all grown up now. 

Back in May, before the London Games began, Mr. Adrian sat before a room of journalists and reminisced about his Beijing experience. The first thing that came to his mind was watching Jason Lezak, the man who saved Michael Phelps's race to eight golds by clawing the US 4x100 relay team back from what seemed certain defeat.

That night, he said, "I saw something that I wanted to be able to do when I grow up."

Wednesday night in the 100-meter freestyle at the Aquatics Centre, he did it. In touching the wall 0.01 seconds ahead of heavy favorite Aussie James Magnussen, he added to the Legend of America's 2012 Aquatic Orphans.

During the past five days, the Americans not named Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Missy Franklin have tried everything short of swimming with "HELLO: MY NAME IS" stickers on their suits in an effort to get a fingertip in the spotlight.

Wednesday night, Adrian's fingertip got the spotlight all to itself.  

With none of the American Big 3 in individual medal races Wednesday, America's overlooked overachievers were for the first time not the undercard, but the main event itself. And they proved that they were worth the price of admission.

First, Adrian won gold in swimming's blue-ribbon event. Next, Rebecca Soni broke a world record in the semifinal of the 200-meter breaststroke – apparently, just because she could (no one was within 2.4 seconds of her). And for the final act, Allison Schmitt proved once again that she is the best swimmer that no one is talking about by grinding up Aussie Alicia Coutts over the last 100 meters of the 4x200 relay to take gold for the US women.

If Ms. Schmitt were British, they would be taking down that Nelson chap from atop his Trafalgar Square column to make space for a golden statue of her.  

To be honest, the relay was all about her – which is saying something, considering that Ms. Franklin was in it, too. 

"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 second-leg swimmer Dana Vollmer, another member of the American Orphans (gold medal and world record in the 100-meter butterfly ... ho hum).

Ms. Vollmer was either clairvoyant or Schmitt is just about as reliable as a German train schedule right now, because that's precisely what happened. The other three women swam valiantly simply to stay close to the Australians. Third-leg swimmer Shannon Vreeland succinctly described her contribution thusly: "It hurts."

Then Schmitt hit the water and, in an instant, the race changed. Coutts was ahead, but not by nearly enough. Like a contractor measuring out the space for a new kitchen, she simply took stock of where she was, what she had to do, and then got out the power tools. By the end of her 200 meters, her half-body-length deficit had been reversed, giving her her fourth medal of London and second gold.  

Adrian's wall

Adrian's 100 meters had none of the seeming inevitability. At 10 meters to go, the pool looked like an outtake from Shark Week – a freeding frenzy of churning water as all eight men neared the wall in a virtually unbroken line. The last would touch the wall only 0.92 seconds after the first, which was Adrian. Barely.  

It was a man's race, but make no mistake, plenty of the kid remains in Adrian. On the pool deck after the race, he gave the impression that he might have just been playing Space Invaders at the local arcade before jumping into the pool.

"You can probably tell on my face, 'Oh, sweet, I won the heat,' and then it took a minute, 'Oh wait, it's the Olympics!' "

We're not sure what he's talking about, either, but he sounds really excited.

Not to be outdone on this Night of the Orphans, Soni didn't even wait until Adrian was finished with his interviews to break her world record. 

"It feels good," Adrian said of his gold medal – then looking up at the screen showing Soni's semifinal race result, added. "Oh, Reb has just broken a world record. Now I'm overshadowed by Reb setting a world record."

Indeed. When the Big 3 aren't around, you've got to make the most of it.

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