Commentary

Relay roles reverse in men's 4x100

Updated: July 30, 2012, 12:36 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

LONDON -- In this summer's blockbuster sequel to the 2008 Olympic men's 4x100 freestyle relay, the French sealed the Americans in carbonite this time.

Four years ago in one of the most dramatic moments in Olympic swimming history, the U.S. team fired a proton torpedo into France's Death Star in the form of Jason Lezak, who overcame a body-length deficit to Alain Bernard in the anchor leg. That swim rallied the U.S. to victory, preserved Michael Phelps' eight-gold-medal run and possibly saved the Rebel Alliance.

Sunday was almost a complete reversal, with Ryan Lochte losing a full second in the anchor leg to France's Yannick Agnel and finishing 0.45 seconds behind the gold medal-winning storm troopers.

[+] EnlargeUSA Relay
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMichael Phelps, Nathan Adrian, Cullen Jones and Ryan Lochte (not pictured) were edged by France in the 4x100 relay final Sunday.

"We had our best four guys and we went out there to win it and we came up short," said Lochte, who took gold in the 400 IM the previous night. "I'm kind of bummed because when we go up on the blocks, we always want to win."

Well, it could have been a lot worse. The Americans did take home silver -- boosting Phelps' career medal total to 17 -- and at least Agnel didn't slice Lochte's hand off at the wrist with a light saber.

Plus, the Americans didn't have to sit through any French trash talk afterward. Bernard infamously said the French would "smash" the Americans in 2008, only to have to eat his words. While one swimmer did tell a reporter, "We got our revenge," the French skipped the usually mandatory postrace news conference for some reason, passing up a chance to really gloat. Which was probably for the best since Agnel might have used the occasion to get into Lochte's head by revealing he was his father.

The French no-show left the U.S. coaches to explain their choices for the relay squad. All four U.S. swimmers who raced in the morning heat, including Lezak, were replaced in the final by Nathan Adrian, Phelps, Cullen Jones and Lochte. There was some mumbling about this -- after the loss, naturally -- but Jones and Adrian had the top two qualifying times in the 100 at the U.S. Olympic trials. And like the U.S. coaches should have left Phelps or Lochte off the final squad?

"The problem is a couple of the guys this morning had big doubles," U.S. coach Gregg Troy said, meaning they had two events to swim Sunday night. "Ryan had a big double, but his events were a little farther apart than a guy like Matt Grevers, who was really good this morning."

It wasn't that Lochte swam so poorly; it was that Agnel and the French swam so well. Agnel raced a blistering 46.74 to Lochte's 47.74. Further, the U.S. wasn't even the favorite heading into the race. That was world-champion Australia, which finished fourth. So imagine the second-guessing in Sydney and Melbourne today.

"That was a heck of a swim from the French," Troy said. "They took the world champion [Bernard] off the relay between morning and night."

Troy said he knew Lochte had gone out too fast when he saw his time after 25 meters. "He had his best 50 on the way out and that's not the way we would have talked about swimming it," Troy said. "He just a got a little excited."

"I don't think Ryan let anybody down," said Jones, who handed his teammate a 0.55-second lead. "I know that kid better than anyone else and he's beating on himself already. He doesn't need to do that. I know he's professional enough that tomorrow he's going to turn around and swim like crazy."

After Adrian got the U.S. off to a lead in the first leg, Phelps built the American lead to 0.76 seconds. It was a reassuring swim, especially after his disappointing fourth-place finish in Saturday's 400 IM. "I felt great, a lot better today than I did yesterday. I was happy," Phelps said. "I was able to put yesterday behind me and move onto today. Hopefully we can just move forward from here."

Right. You have to move. Sometimes you win and sometimes the other swimmer is better and you lose. All you can do is just go out and win the next time.

As Yoda would say, there is no try, just gold medal or gold medal not.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com