Linda Robertson

Relay loss leaves U.S. swimming treading water in Olympics

Order was not restored in the Olympic pool on Sunday night.

In fact, it was jumbled again.

A day after Michael Phelps failed to get on the Olympic medal podium for the first time since 2000, he swam much better. But it didn’t matter. Silver in the 400-meter freestyle relay doesn’t matter. Sounds harsh, but it’s true, especially when the foursome from the United States included the two best swimmers in the world.

Ryan Lochte, who swamped the field Saturday to win the 400 individual medley and proclaim “this is my year,” blew the United States’ lead in the last 30 meters of his anchor leg.

What is going on here?

To lose to the French? Who are good at, what? Fencing? Team handball?

No offense, but the nation of Johnny Weismuller, Mark Spitz, Janet Evans and Phelps should not lose the most elemental of relays to the French. Lochte should not be reeled in like a helpless fish by Yannick Agnel, who swam a full second faster.

Nor should U.S. swimmers rationalize the result as a moral victory, as Nathan Adrian did.

“We don’t consider it necessarily a loss,” said Adrian, who swam the first leg in 47.89 to give the United States a lead of .14 seconds. “We frame it as, we won the silver, whether that’s good enough for people or not. I think the world had chalked it up as a loss for the U.S., and we went down fighting. We almost got it.”

When has Lochte accepted almost?

“We are kind of bummed because when you go up on the blocks you always want to win,” Lochte said.

Kind of bummed? Granted, the 100 free is not Lochte’s specialty. Granted, he swam a qualifying and semifinal heat of the 200 free on Sunday prior to the relay. Granted, the French team is loaded with sprinting talent. And granted, the United States did not disappoint as much as Australia, which was the favorite and faded to fourth behind the Russians.

But it was undeniably demoralizing for the U.S. team, defending Olympic champion in all three men’s relays, to lose the one that produced one of the most memorable finishes in swimming history. Four years ago in Beijing, Jason Lezak chased down France’s Alain Bernard with a 46.06-second anchor leg to win the event and set the world record of 3:08.24. The United States’ time Sunday was 3:10.38 to France’s 3:09.93.

This time, Lezak swam in qualifying but was deemed too old and slow for the final. The anchor task was assigned to Lochte, whose race schedule here is so complicated he could use a pool deck secretary to remind him, “Mr. Lochte, you have 20 minutes to recover before your next race, which is backstroke not breaststroke, and I will pencil in lunch for 12:23 p.m.”

This time, the anchor leg reminded U.S. coach, Florida coach and Lochte’s personal coach Gregg Troy of 2008, only in reverse. In 2008, when Lezak out-touched Bernard, Lezak’s teammates’ mouths fell agape as they screamed and hugged and the Beijing Cube seemed to pulse with the sounds of joy and relief. Not only did they win, but they preserved Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals.

This time, “we were all straining and straining” Cullen Jones said, as Lochte clawed through the water and Agnel sliced through it, pulling even then edging ahead in the closing meters.

Lochte swam a swift 47.74 but Agnel swam 46.74.

“Ryan swam out of his mind, but you can’t predict a 46.6 by Yannick just like you couldn’t predict a 46.0 by Jason,” Jones said. “People get jacked up for relays.”

Crueler still was Phelps’ 47.15 second leg, second fastest of the night and an effort that gave the United States a body-length lead at the halfway point.

“I saw Nathan turn first, and I wanted to give our guys a bigger lead,” Phelps said. “I felt a lot better than [Saturday]. I was happy.”

Happy with second place? That won’t do if Phelps hopes to beat Lochte in the 200 IM on Thursday. He’s 0 for 2 in golds so far after going 8 for 8 in Beijing. Such is the burden of expectations for Phelps, who is on the cusp of becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Dana Vollmer saved the day for the Americans on Day Two, not only winning the only gold but also setting a world record of 55.98 seconds in the 100 butterfly. Vollmer overcame a poor start that put her third at the turn. She came back on her competition while Lochte, whom she knew during her one season in Gainesville, could not hold on.

Vollmer, a 2004 Olympian, used her disappointment at not qualifying for the 2008 Games and nearly quitting the sport to turn around her swimming career.

“This is everything I could have dreamed of,” said Vollmer, who has overcome knee, back and shoulder injuries and a heart condition that requires her to carry a defibrillator. “In 2008 it took me awhile to make the transition that I wanted to swim again.”

Phelps and Lochte are rare talents. After two curious days at London’s Aquatics Centre, they both have opportunities to do what Vollmer did. When you’re that good, you don’t settle for anything less than first.