ROME, July 26 — These were the simple facts before Michael Phelps’s first race, the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, at the world championships in Rome on Sunday:
The French team had five swimmers with faster times than any eligible American in the event this year. The top American, Jason Lezak, did not even show up. Brazil’s César Cielo, the Olympic champion in the 50 free, said Sunday morning that nobody — certainly not the patchwork American team — had a prayer of toppling France.
And then came the really bad news: Phelps led off Sunday night’s final with a slower time than he posted in last year’s Olympics, touching the wall after his lead-off leg in third place. His hopes for winning six gold medals in six events at these championships seemed dead in the water.
But then another French Fade and another all-American display of grit and guts turned the whole thing around. On a night an astonishing six world records fell at the Foro Italico — unleashing the now-customary tirades against the high-tech suits believed to be behind them — the only final that did not produce a world record provided the biggest shock.
The U.S. team claimed an unlikely gold medal in 3 minutes 9.21 seconds, beating a largely anonymous Russian team (3:09.52) and the mystifyingly unimpressive French (3:09.89), who did not explain the debacle because they skipped the required interview sessions after the defeat.
“On paper, they’re faster,” said Ryan Lochte, who swam the second leg. “But paper doesn’t really matter when you step on the blocks. What it comes down to is racing. ….. That’s how we race.”
Indeed, a U.S. team that had never swum together stepped up after a suit malfunction Sunday morning nearly prevented the Americans from even qualifying in the event’s heats. And they persevered after an extremely average day from the team’s resident living legend.
“Tonight, we pretty much had a whole new relay,” said Phelps, who has won 14 gold medals in the last two Olympic Games. “I think tonight we came together well as a team. We swam great as Team USA. They put together three solid splits. I was a little disappointed; I wanted to swim a little faster.”
Phelps’s lead off leg of 47.78 seconds put him 0.69 behind Cielo and 0.05 behind France’s Fabien Gilot. Though it looked bad, things could have been worse. Moments before the event’s qualifying heats Sunday morning, Ricky Berens, scheduled to swim third on the U.S. morning relay team, bent over to stretch and ripped the back of his suit. A large part of his rear- end was exposed.
Urged on by relay teammate Cullen Jones, Berens competed anyway, helping the U.S. team qualify for Sunday’s final.
“I kind of freaked out for just a second,” Berens said. “I felt like [the tear] was almost down to my knees. I felt like I was putting on a pretty good show.”
He did, but it didn’t match the show later.
Phelps’s leg gave Lochte, who had never before swum a major 4×100 free relay for the U.S. team, a significant challenge. He faced French speedster Alain Bernard, who had been overtaken in last year’s Olympic relay by Lezak, who chose to compete in last week’s Maccabiah Games rather than the world championships.
“Right before I stepped onto the blocks …. I saw Bernard,” Lochte said. “He’s like seven feet tall. I was like, ‘What?’ How am I racing this guy?”
Lochte, however, produced the fastest 100 of his life, coming home in 47.03. He shrank the U.S. deficit to 0.62, only France had taken the lead (thanks to Bernard’s 46.46) and Brazil was in second.
Lochte handed the challenge over to Matt Grevers, a former Northwestern swimmer who won a spot on the relay team only after what amounted to an audition in Sunday morning’s heats, when he swam the fastest leg.
“I’ve never really been the weak link on the relay before,” Grevers said.
Despite his fears, he wasn’t Sunday night. He passed France’s Gregory Mallet, but a new problem emerged as Grevers came home. U.S. anchor Nathan Adrian, the U.S. champion in the 100 free, had to contend with a late surge by Russia, which surprisingly took the lead by 0.29.
The Russian team, swimming in Lane 8, did not possess a single well-known star. (Have you heard of Evgeniy Lagunov, Andrey Grechin, Danila Izotov or Alexander Sukhorukov?)
“I did not see Russia coming,” U.S. men’s coach Bob Bowman said. “I kept saying, ‘Who’s out in Lane 8? Who is that?’ I kept saying, ‘They must have someone really slow in the anchor leg,’ and they did not.”
Indeed, like at the Olympics last year, the U.S. team was staring at a silver medal. But this time it was Adrian, who swam in the preliminary round of the 400 relay last year, who had the task of bringing the United States back. He wasn’t sure he was up for the task.
“Coming on this relay, to be honest, I kind of felt like a child among men,” Adrian said. “I had a little bit of pressure on myself. My legs were shaking a little bit.”
Adrian, however, swam the fastest anchor leg of the night, touching the wall in 46.79 seconds. It didn’t match Lezak’s miracle leg (46.06) at last year’s Olympics, but it salvaged a seemingly lost gold.
“The best thing about this relay was that [Phelps’s teammates] carried Michael,” said Bowman, Phelps’s longtime coach. “That’s what we need.”