After she turned and sprang off the wall, she emerged from the water nearly in the lead. From there, it was over. No woman had ever broken the 56-second mark in the 100 butterfly, and as Vollmer pulled away, that was the only remaining question. She crushed sliver medalist Lu Ying of China by 89 hundredths of a second. When she pulled off her goggles and blinked her eyes clear, she saw the numbers on the scoreboard, and raised her right fist, pumping it.
“She’s just a beautiful person,” said Australian Alicia Coutts, who won bronze. “I don’t think anyone’s more deserving than she is. I’m just glad to have been part of the race.”
That, too, was Hansen’s attitude. Once the world-record holder in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes, he failed to win both in Athens — losing to Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima — and then crashed in 2008, making only one race for the Olympics and lagging badly. So the bronze he won Sunday — behind Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa’s world-record 58.46 seconds and silver medalist Christian Sprenger of Australia — was immensely satisfying, not in the least because he beat Kitajima, who swam a lane away.
“It’s the shiniest bronze medal I’ll ever have,” Hansen said.
Schmitt trailed France’s Camille Muffat the entirety of the 400 freestyle, but set an American record of 4:01.77 in taking her silver, handily beating Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, who won gold four years ago but bronze in her home country.
The night, though, was Vollmer’s. No one else had a performance like hers.
“I did something that no one’s ever done before,” she said. In a way, surely, no one envisioned doing it.