SHANGHAI — Usually the three men on the pool deck look possessed as the last American comes home in the 4x100-meter relay, as if their urging, roaring, waving and praying could somehow get the last guy to the wall faster. On Sunday, Michael Phelps and his two teammates stood virtually silent as Nathan Adrian finished his swim, Phelps offering weak applause as Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale stared at the scoreboard, mouths agape.
Third place. And it wasn’t a contest.
What a way to kick off the swimming world championships, the final major tuneup for the 2012 Summer Games in London. Ending a streak of six straight gold medals in major events, the U.S. men put forward a performance that left them, their coaches and teammates shell-shocked. And mad. And worse.
“Truly,” Weber-Gale said, “I feel sick about it.”
Moments after the U.S. women lost the lead — and earned the silver — on the final leg of their relay, the once-dominant U.S. men never led and finished in 3 minutes 11.96 seconds at the Oriental Sports Center, behind the Australians (3:11.00) and French (3:11.14).
“It stinks,” Phelps said flatly moments after the race.
He then added later: “As Americans, we want to win everything we do. We want to be the best . . . We all know we can be better than that.”
The race featured a good start by Phelps, two substandard legs from Weber-Gale and Lezak, and a strong but not superb finish by Adrian. It also featured Ryan Lochte, a star of the ’09 world championship relay, relegated to only the preliminary round Sunday morning; his time then was not fast enough to get him onto the night’s squad.
But it looked like the United States could have used him. Weber-Gale misjudged his speed at the start, going out too slowly, and Lezak, a swimmer who relies on heavy rotation in his stroke , got pushed around like a buoy by the waves generated by the teams in front. Weber-Gale’s split (48.33) registered as the 18th fastest of the night; Lezak’s (48.15) was tied for 17th.
Nearly 90 minutes after the race, Weber-Gale stood in front of reporters, shaking the bouquet he had received on the medal stand.
“It’s pretty embarrassing for me to go slow like that,” Weber-Gale said. “It’s very disappointing for me. Such a slow leg, I feel like it’s my fault we did poorly. I swam nowhere near my ability.”
U.S. men’s head coach Eddie Reese confessed he couldn’t quite believe what he saw on the results sheet. Australian James Magnussen beat Phelps on the opening leg, 47.49 to 48.08. Three men bested Weber-Gale on the second leg and five topped Lezak on the fourth. Two anchors, France’s Fabien Gilot and Italy’s Filippo Magnini, beat Adrian’s concluding 47.40.
“Those other countries did an amazing job,” said Lezak, famous for his gold-medal-saving anchor at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. “It takes 100-percent of a team doing best splits to win nowadays. . . . Unfortunately, I was one of the average guys out there.”
As they assembled on the medal stand, the Americans watched the Australians celebrate. They muttered something else entirely.
“We just talked about not liking where we were standing,” Phelps said.
The U.S. women were considerably happier with their silver, despite losing it on the final leg as Dutch anchor Femke Heemskerk dropped the fastest time of the night (52.46) to overtake Dana Vollmer (53.27). The women trailed Netherlands (3:33.96), finishing in 3:34.47 as Germany took third in 3:36.05.
The women got a great start from Natalie Coughlin (54.09) and a jaw-dropping second leg from teen sensation Missy Franklin (52.99). Jessica Hardy faded at the end of her swim but held the lead with a 54.12. Vollmer, who had competed earlier in the 100 butterfly semifinals, could not fend off Heemskerk despite posting a personal best.
“Obviously, you never like diving in ahead and coming in second,” Vollmer said. “Personally, it lights a little bit of a fire for me.”
By night’s end, the U.S. team was just about burning up.
“We never like it,” Reese said. “We think we’re a country that, no matter how good we are in individual events, we always swim the relays. . . .We had splits not at all like we thought they would be.”
Notes: Towson’s Katie Hoff emerged disappointed after the final of the 400, where she finished seventh in 4:08.22, more than six seconds behind winner Federica Pellegrini of Italy, who claimed first in 4:01.97. Hoff, a five-time world champion who narrowly made it into the final with the eighth-best qualifying time, said she had hoped to go 4:05 or better.
“It just wasn’t there,” she said. “That little extra-special something that you need to win a race, it wasn’t there. . . . It’s obviously good to make a final, other than that . . . ask me tomorrow.”