Missy Franklin opens with gold
BARCELONA, Spain -- Missy Franklin is off to a good start at the world swimming championships, thanks to a teammate.
Katie Ledecky showed her Olympic triumph was no fluke, turning in another dominating performance before she heads off to 11th grade.
But the American men still can't beat the French in the relay.
Franklin captured gold in the first of her eight events in Barcelona, though it took a brilliant anchor leg by Megan Romano to pull it out a victory in the women's 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday evening.
No swimmer -- not even Michael Phelps -- has ever won eight golds at the world championships, and Franklin would've been out of the running on the very first night of pool swimming if not for Romano chasing down Australia's Alicia Coutts.
"Oh my gosh, it was amazing!" Franklin said.
Franklin was far behind in second after a blistering start by Cate Campbell. Natalie Coughlin and Shannon Vreeland chipped away at the Australian lead before Romano finished the job. She touched in 3 minutes, 32.43 seconds, edging Coutts by 0.12. The Netherlands finished another 3 seconds behind for the bronze.
"I just love to race. And relays are awesome," Romano said. "It's great competing for these girls next to me. I was doing it for them. It's fun and I love it. I can't not go fast."
The 16-year-old Ledecky captured the first U.S. gold of the night, just missing the world record in the 400 free. Like Franklin, she's planning a grueling program at these worlds that also includes the 800 and 1,500 free.
It looks likes Ledecky can handle the load, her star still on the rise after a stunning gold medal in the 800 at the London Olympics when she was a complete unknown internationally.
"It is easier," she said. "I am a lot more relaxed on the international stage after having the Olympics as a first international competition. It's just great to get back to a top international competition and to do well."
She was under world-record pace much of the race before winning with a time of 3:59.82 -- just 0.67 seconds off the mark set by Italy's Federica Pelligrini back in 2009 in one of those rubberized suits that are no longer allowed.
Melanie Costa of Spain took silver in 4:02.47, while the bronze went to New Zealand's Lauren Boyle in 4:03.89.
"I really wasn't expecting to go that fast, that wasn't my focus," Ledecky said. "I just wanted to get into a race with the other girls and do my best."
The Americans were ready for another celebration until the French chased them down in the final event of the night, the men's 400 free relay.
That was just how it went last summer in London, when Yannick Agnel overtook Ryan Lochte just before the finish to snatch the gold away from a U.S. team that included Phelps.
Now retired -- though for how long remains a pressing question in the swimming world -- Phelps cheered on his former teammates from the stands at the Palau Sant Jordi, where he had a breakout performance at the world championships 10 years ago. He was in no condition to swim on this night, entering the arena wearing a boot cast on his right foot, apparently after injuring it a couple of weeks ago playing golf.
On this relay, Agnel went out first for the French instead of at the end, and he was next-to-last when he handed off to Florent Manaudou. France was still only fourth after a blistering 100 by Fabien Gilot (the fastest of the night, 46.90). The U.S. was slightly ahead of the Australians when Anthony Ervin passed it off to anchor Jimmy Feigen.
But Jeremy Stravius closed fast for the French, touching the wall in 3:11.18. The Americans took silver in 3:11.42, while Russia claimed the bronze in 3:11.44. The Aussies faded to fourth.
"I actually didn't even see (the French) until the last five meters," Feigen said. "Maybe I should have paid more attention to them."
Agnel was asked whether he was happy Phelps was in the stands rather than in the pool.
"I don't understand the question," Agnel quipped.
The crowd roared when the results were posted, waving scores of French flags as the four members of the relay team joined hands and posed triumphantly at the edge of the pool.
"It feels like home," Agnel said.
Franklin, now 18 and getting ready to go off to college at Cal-Berkeley, won four golds and a bronze at last summer's Olympics. She just missed out on medals in the 100 and 200 free -- events she will again swim at the worlds along with the 50 back, a non-Olympic event.
"I'm right where I was last summer, which gives me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the meet," Franklin said. "I think I am a little stronger in my backstrokes than my freestyles, but I've done a lot of work on my freestyle the past year so I really hope that it's going to be up there."
Phelps, of course, won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But he never did it at the worlds, coming oh-so-close in 2007 when he won his first seven events but never got a chance in the eighth. The Americans were disqualified in the preliminaries of the 400 medley relay while Phelps was resting up to swim in the final.
China's Sun Yang cruised to an easy win in the first pool swimming final of these championships, the men's 400 free. The towering Sun said he still had plenty in the tank when he finished.
He sure looked fresh as he hopped out of the pool and flexed his fists for the crowd. The winning time was 3:41.59, far ahead of the silver medalist, Japan's Kosuke Hagino (3:44.82). Connor Jaeger of the United States took the bronze in 3:44.85.
"I had a pretty good time for me because I don't have a major challenger here," said Sun, who won two golds, a silver and a bronze at the London Games. "If I had had one, I would have gone a lot faster."