Risky plan for USA men's freestyle relay backfires in an ironic twist

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

LONDON – The French, fittingly, have a phrase for what we saw Sunday night at the Aquatics Centre: déjà vu.

But déjà vu came seasoned with a gift from the Greeks: irony. The Greeks also gave us the Olympics, of course -- and even in the ancient history of these Games, there weren't too many ironies more startling than what went down in the pool here.

This ironic déjà vu involved the men's 400-meter freestyle relay, which eerily repeated itself from 2008 -- only in reverse. Back then, the United States overhauled France in the final meters to win a race for the ages. Now, France overhauled the United States in the final meters to win a race for the ages.

Touché, as they say.

And during the fast and furious 200 seconds that it took the race to play out, some hastily reached conclusions underwent radical revision. Ryan Lochte plummeted from being labeled the greatest swimmer on Earth to being unfairly labeled a goat. Michael Phelps was reclassified from fading to formidable.

[ Photos: French men defeat U.S. in tight 400m freestyle relay ]

There were contradictions, too. The Americans lost some relay luster and felt the sting of disappointment, despite swimming faster than expected and winning the medal many predicted all along. The French buried their long-held "choker" label -- then, in a bizarre flourish of Gallic pique, blew off the press conference.

It was that kind of night: a drama rife with jarring plot twists, a festival of second-guessing, a panoply of conflicting emotions.

"It's the Olympics," said U.S. assistant coach Eddie Reese. "Hang on."

Hanging on, as it turned out, was the problem.

Ryan Lochte was in the water, in the lead, seemingly in command. He was closing in on a second signature moment in as many nights at these London Olympics. He was bringing home a smashing, surprising gold medal for the United States -- a relay triumph to put alongside his 400 individual medley victory that opened these Games with a flourish. He was about 20 seconds from owning London.

As he churned through the final 50 meters, Lochte had no threat from the team to his right -- the favored Australians, who had referred to their relay as "Weapons of Mass Destruction." Like the WMDs in Iraq, they turned out to be more myth than substance, fading to fourth.

[ Related: Ryan Lochte steps out of Phelps's shadow, shreds 400 IM field ]

But to Lochte's left -- away from the side where he does most of his breathing -- up surged French anchorman Yannick Agnel. What Lochte may not have seen, his American teammates on the pool deck saw very clearly. And the sight was distressing.

"We were all screaming," said Cullen Jones, who swam the third leg and sent Lochte into the water with a half-second lead. "Screaming to get to the wall. 'Don't die!' But he swam a great leg."

Lochte did, in fact, die. He had no energy to bring the race home. This was a tactical failure on his part, but it was brought on by the larger failure of his coach, Gregg Troy, who is also the head American men's coach.

Lochte was too amped for his anchor leg, taking it out too quickly. An explosive underwater start sapped his energy. His turnover was too fast. Not a natural sprinter, he immediately engaged in a dead sprint.

"I overswam the first 50," he said, "which hurt me in the last 50."

Said Troy: "I knew on the first 25 he was in trouble."

[ Related: Michael Phelps's 'crappy' first swim raises the red flag ]

This was trouble of Troy's making. Lochte was a bit of a surprise inclusion on the relay, since he rarely swims the 100 free. And he was definitely a surprise choice to anchor -- he'd never anchored a 400 freestyle relay in a major national or international event.

"Kind of a coaching error," Troy acknowledged. But later, when I asked if in hindsight he would have taken Lochte out of the anchor role, he said, "No, I think we probably would've swam the same relay."

Another ancient Greek concept comes to mind here: hubris.

Troy surprisingly put Lochte in a high-risk, high-reward position that was never a natural fit. That excessive pride in his personal star swimmer gave Lochte a chance to play the hero -- but also the chance to be the guy who blew the race.

In reality, the race was taken from Lochte more than he gave it away, but the fact remains that he had a significant lead in the final leg and got smoked. With a different anchor -- a more seasoned 100-meter swimmer -- the result may have been a rousing triumph.

"He didn't have much experience there," Troy said. "I just wish he could have swam a little bit smarter race."

[ Tomorrow Makers Video: Ryan Lochte to go for gold in 200m freestyle ]

The decision of who would swim for the Americans in the final was closely scrutinized and hotly debated. Troy and his staff went by the book in the preliminaries Sunday morning -- they swam the third-through-sixth-place finishers in the 100 free at the Olympic trials.

Then they got creative at night. Phelps was given his shot -- despite bombing in the 400 IM Saturday, his experience as a relay stud made him a must-use. But the U.S. staff opted to move him out of his customary leadoff spot.

Instead, trials champion Nathan Adrian led off, with the thinking being that he would be a good matchup with the up-front speed of Aussie James Magnussen. Adrian came through, splitting a 47.89 and opening up a 0.14-second lead over Magnussen.

Second in the water was Phelps. Troy said he wanted his first two swimmers to create some "open water" on the Australians -- to get third and fourth legs Jones and Lochte a lead and plenty of wave-free swimming. That also worked well, with Phelps splitting a 47.15 -- fastest of all the Americans by a wide margin. That marked a major redemption for Phelps, and signals that the 400 IM blip should be behind him for the rest of the meet.

"I felt a lot better today than I did yesterday," he said. "I was happy I was able to put yesterday behind me."

Phelps also put the Aussies, French, and Russians nearly a second behind. America was in a commanding position when Jones dove in.

Talk about irony: In Beijing, Jones swam a poor 400 relay leg and won a gold medal; in London he swam a strong leg (47.60) and won a silver.

"I was really happy with my effort," Jones said. "I didn't do my part in 2008."

Fact is, all four guys did their part well for the Americans on Sunday. They all went sub-48, which prior to the race seemed to be the recipe for a gold medal.

[ Related: Funny Phelps-Lochte video might be the best of the 'Call Me Maybe' parodies ]

"When we put it on paper two weeks ago, we weren't even close [to gold]," Troy said.

Suddenly, there the Americans were. Tantalizingly close to gold. A risky plan was unfolding perfectly.

But nobody counted on Agnel going Lezak Lite.

Four years ago in Beijing, Jason Lezak swam the fastest 100 meters in history to catch Frenchman Alain Bernard by 0.08 seconds. Lezak split a crazy 46.06, roaring back from near-certain defeat.

Sunday night in London, Agnel cranked out a 46.74-second leg, easily the fastest split of the night. Unlike Lezak, it didn't take until the final windmilling stroke to pull this one out -- Agnel passed Lochte with a few meters to spare and France won the race by 0.45 seconds.

"The French didn't go away," Reese said. "They were awesome."

He smiled wryly.

"It almost reminds me of another relay in the Olympics."

Same relay as Beijing, only in reverse. Déjà vu with a dash of irony.

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