ATHENS, Aug. 17 -- It was a day of deliverance for the U.S. Olympic team. Maryland swimmer Michael Phelps delivered a pair of gold medals, including one in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay that will pass instantly into swimming legend, while the men's basketball team merely delivered itself from another embarrassment.
The difference between delivering a gold, or not, was in some cases the length of a fingertip or a single foot wrong. Mariel Zagunis won the first American gold in a century in the delicate, reflexive art of fencing, while the U.S. women gymnasts took the silver medal in the team competition, a series of minor mishaps giving the gold to Romania.
Peter Vanderkaay, second from left, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte celebrate U.S. men's gold medal in the 4x200 freestyle relay.
(Anja Niedringhaus -- AP)
Phelps won his second individual gold of these Olympics with a victory in the 200 butterfly, and then swam the first leg of what he called a relay "that will go down as one of the greatest in history." A day after failing in his aim of equaling Mark Spitz's all-time record, Phelps will nevertheless leave here with some very heavy neck wear. But more gratifying than his medal count was the electrifying style in which his third gold came: with Phelps leading off and providing a one-second lead, the Americans swam hand-to-hand with the Australians for nearly seven minutes in a steadily mounting roar that reached a hysterical peak when Klete Keller outfought Australia's Ian Thorpe to the wall, to win by just 13-hundredths of a second.
Phelps had almost visibly shrugged with dissatisfaction at his gold performance in the 200 butterfly, an event in which he owns the world record and was a heavy favorite. He padded impassively away from the pool after swimming merely an Olympic record time of 1 minute 54:01 seconds. But an hour later Phelps was the picture of rowdy, screaming joy when Keller out-touched Thorpe to upset a favored Australian team that historically owns the endurance relay. The normally self-contained 19-year-old hurled his arms into the air and caught teammates Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay in a giant group arm lock. For the next several minutes, he radiated triumph, a mood he had not shown previously in his pressure-ridden Games.
"I've never celebrated like that in my entire life," he said.
Halfway through his Olympics, Phelps has won five medals in four days. He won gold in the 400 individual medley on Saturday. But his effort to surpass or equal Spitz's record of seven gold medals came to an end on Monday with a disappointing though not entirely unexpected bronze in the 200 freestyle. He added another bronze in the 400 freestyle relay. He has three races remaining.
The U.S. basketball team also enjoyed a close finish, but without the thrill or reward of a medal to show for it. The Americans' victory over Greece, 77-71, merely avoided an 0-2 start in the Olympic tournament and was closer than they would have liked. Forty-eight hours earlier, a team stocked with NBA players suffered a mortifying 92-73 loss to Puerto Rico, plunging Coach Larry Brown into despondency and provoking the statement, "I feel like a failure," and a warning to expect further losses. But another loss would be judged a disaster of historical proportions: The USA had previously lost only two games in 68 years.
But the victory was hardly reassuring. With 17 seconds left, the Greeks trailed by just four points. Dimitris Papanikolaou had a chance to cut it to two with a look at a layup, but Lamar Odom partially blocked it and recovered the rebound, and then sank the pair of free throws that accounted for the game's final points. Allen Iverson led the Americans with 17 points despite a broken thumb on his shooting hand, and Tim Duncan had 14.
On the other end of the historical-marker spectrum, Zagunis won this country's first fencing gold medal in a hundred years. Wielding her sabre, a cavalry-style weapon that is the fastest of the three sword disciplines, Zagunis defeated Tan Xue of China, 15-9. The 19-year-old, who will be a freshman at Notre Dame University in the fall, scored the first point with a rapid lunge and seemed to never retreat again. "I don't even know what to say, I'm just so happy," she said. She was joined on the medal podium by teammate Sada Jacobsen, who won the bronze. They were the first American fencers to win a medal since Peter Westbrook won a bronze in the sabre in 1984. The event was such an overwhelming occasion for the Americans that the men's team seized Zagunis and tossed her into the air in the middle of the Helliniko Fencing Hall.
For a brief time, a women's gymnastics team that has been called perhaps the strongest the Americans have ever put together, was in first place ahead of traditional power Romania. Courtney Kupets, of Gaithersburg, gave the United States the lead with a darting, fluttering performance on the uneven bars, the event in which she was world champion in 2002, to earn a score of 9.62 from the judges. But an ensuing series of very minor but costly errors dropped them into second place, while Romania performed cleanly. Carly Patterson's foot caught one of the uneven bars. Team captain Mohini Bhardwaj executed a series of aerials and handsprings on the balance beam, only to shudder slightly on the landing of a somersault.
That gave the lead back to Romania with only the floor exercise remaining. Any chance the Americans had of taking the gold disappeared when Kupets, who was competing with a sore right leg, suddenly lost her balance on a simple pirouette move during a dance sequence, and stumbled sideways to a sharp intake of breath from the audience. The Americans sat morosely as the precise performances of Romanians Daniela Sofronie and Catalina Ponor carried away the enthusiasm of the crowd, and the gold.
"We made small mistakes," Bela Karolyi, the husband of U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi, said to the Associated Press. "Small mistakes are to be paid for. And we paid."