Olympic Swimming

French revolution: Anchor leg sinks U.S.

Agnel swims blazing final 100 meters to relegate Americans to silver medal

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJuly 30, 2012 

— It took the French four years, but they got revenge on the Americans Sunday in the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay at the Olympics.

Cullen Jones – the former N.C. State star and Charlotte resident – swam the third leg of the relay and left the pool with a lead of 0.55 seconds. The anchor leg was being swum by Ryan Lochte, who had already won a gold medal Saturday and seemed poised for a huge Olympics.

“We all obviously thought, ‘We got this,” Jones said. He even had the presence of mind to get out of the water quickly, trying to ensure he got into the celebratory pictures.

But then Frenchman Yannick Agnel blazed through the final 100 meters a full second faster than Lochte, swooping past the American in the last 25 meters and winning by 0.45 seconds. The U.S. settled for silver. Charlotte’s Ricky Berens also received a silver medal because he swam the 4x100 relay in the preliminaries Sunday morning.

It was almost an exact replica of the same event in Beijing, except in that one American Jason Lezak swam an incredible anchor leg to overtake France at the wall.

Lochte described himself as “kind of bummed” afterward, although his time of 47.74 seconds for the anchor leg was respectable. “I overswam the first 50, which kind of hurt me for the last 50,” Lochte said. “You would think doing distance events I wouldn’t get tired, but sprinting definitely takes a lot out of you.”

The French took their gold medal and bolted, skipping the customary post-race press conference and heading back to the Olympic Village. The Russians, who finished third, also skipped the press conference. Australia, the team the U.S. was most concerned about coming in, finished fourth.

It was left to Jones to describe Agnel’s performance, which Jones called “out of his mind,” “ridiculous” and “Superman-level.”

Meanwhile, SwimMAC Carolina’s Nick Thoman made it to the Monday night’s final in the 100 backstroke by qualifying fifth in the semifinals. Thoman will need to improve his time slightly but he does have a chance to earn a medal Monday.

“I’ve been dreaming about this since I started swimming 22 years ago,” Thoman said Sunday. “So I’m going to have to push some of the emotion aside but use the good part – the pain and the hunger of the past 22 years – and try to get in the water and go as fast as I can.”

Charlotte’s Ricky Berens barely missed the final of Monday night’s 200 freestyle, however, finishing ninth in the semifinals when he needed to be in the top eight to advance.

“Good race,” a disappointed Berens said, “but I just had a really bad finish. I felt I was coming home really strong but I should have taken an extra stroke. That’s the only mistake I think I made.”

One bright spot for U.S. swimming in the 4x100 relay – Michael Phelps had the fastest leg of the team of Nathan Adrian, Phelps, Jones and Lochte. (Berens had swum in the morning relay, but the U.S. coaches changed out the entire team for the evening relay).

“It felt great,” said Phelps, who had finished fourth to Lochte’s first in the 400 individual medley Saturday night. “I was able to put [Saturday] behind me and move on.”

Lochte was “beating on himself already” and probably would until the next Olympics, said Jones, his close friend. “But he doesn’t need to do that,” Jones continued. “He put forth the effort and swam an extremely fast 100 freestyle.”

In 2008 at the Olympics, Jones had the slowest leg in the U.S. 4x100 freestyle relay and gave Lezak more ground to make up. This time Jones had the second-fastest leg on the U.S. team, behind only Phelps.

“It does set me up well for my two individual events,” said Jones, who still has the 50 and 100 freestyle left in this meet.

Jones was asked if he appreciated the irony of the French winning in almost the exact same way as the U.S. did four years ago.

“I can definitely appreciate irony,” Jones said. “I almost drowned [as a child in a waterpark], and now I’m an Olympic swimmer.”

Now Jones owns two Olympic medals, too. But when he looks at them together, the one that came Sunday night may provoke a more bittersweet memory than the first.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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