Adrian, though, didn’t know right away that his hand — outstretched fingers attached to an outstretched wrist at the end of an outstretched arm — had touched almost imperceptibly first. When he finally blinked away the drops from his eyes and saw the scoreboard — Adrian, 47.52 seconds; Magnussen, 47.53 — he slapped at the water and let out a wail.
“It was a moment of disbelief,” he said.
The women, in turn, had quite a believable moment in what’s becoming an unbelievable week. The plan was simple: Give Schmitt a position in which she could at least see the leaders, and she would reel them in over the final 200 meters. She already had won the gold medal at that distance earlier in the week, and with four medals in four swims, two of them gold, she is on a short list of potential swimmers of the meet.
“She’s really learned the mental game,” said Bowman, who also coaches Phelps. “. . . She’s focused when she needs to be focused. She’s relaxed when she needs to be relaxed. She knows how to use her energy.”
She used it all on that last leg. Australia handed a lead of .54 seconds to Alicia Coutts, its anchor. She stood no chance. After the midway point, when the American team trailed by .63 of a second, Schmitt crushed Coutts. When she touched the wall for the final 50 meters, she had completely flipped it — taking the lead by .63 of a second. Her teammates stood on the pool deck, huddled and waiting.
“I just wanted to bring it home for them,” Schmitt said.
She did, giving the Americans an Olympic record 7 minutes 42.92 seconds — 1.49 seconds faster than Australia, a yawning 4.57 seconds faster than third-place France. The embrace when Schmitt climbed from the pool was all-encompassing and heartfelt, because winning a relay after so much time “means the world to us,” Franklin said.
On the medal stand, the four women clasped hands once again. They laughed. They sang the national anthem. Then they walked around the pool, waving and wrapping themselves in a flag. And then they held hands again, the final sign of togetherness for an American team that has three more days to show how together they are.