In an Olympic Flashback, U.S. Team Rallies to Win Gold

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

ROME, July 26 -- These were the simple facts before Michael Phelps's first race, the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, at the world championships in Rome on Sunday:

The French team had five swimmers with faster times than any eligible American in the event this year. The top American, Jason Lezak, did not even show up. Brazil's C├ęsar Cielo, the Olympic champion in the 50 free, said flatly Sunday morning nobody -- certainly not the patchwork American team -- had a prayer of toppling France.

And then came the really bad news: Phelps led off Sunday night's final with a slower time than he posted in last year's Olympics, touching the wall after his leadoff leg in third place. His hopes for winning six gold medals in six events at these championships seemed dead in the water.

But then another French Fade and another all-American display of grit and guts turned the whole thing around, so unexpectedly. On a night an astonishing six world records fell at the Foro Italico -- unleashing the now-customary tirades against the high-tech suits believed to be behind them -- the only final that did not produce a world record provided the biggest shock.

The U.S. team claimed an unlikely gold medal in 3 minutes 9.21 seconds, beating a largely anonymous Russian team (3:09.52) and the mystifyingly unimpressive French (3:09.89), who did not explain the debacle because they skipped the required interview sessions after the defeat.

"On paper, they're faster," said Ryan Lochte, who swam the second leg. "But paper doesn't really matter when you step on the blocks. What it comes down to is racing. . . . That's how we race."

Indeed, a U.S. team that had never swum together stepped up after a suit malfunction Sunday morning nearly prevented the Americans from even qualifying in the event's heats. And they persevered after an extremely average day from the team's resident living legend.

"Tonight, we pretty much had a whole new relay," said Phelps, who has won 14 gold medals in the last two Olympic Games. "I think tonight we came together well as a team. We swam great as Team USA. They put together three solid splits. I was a little disappointed; I wanted to swim a little faster."

Phelps's leadoff leg of 47.78 seconds put him 0.69 behind Cielo and 0.05 behind France's Fabien Gilot. Though it looked bad, things could have been worse. Moments before the event's qualifying heats Sunday morning, Ricky Berens, scheduled to swim third on the U.S. morning relay team, bent over to stretch and ripped the back of his suit. A large part of his rear end was exposed.

Urged on by relay teammate Cullen Jones, Berens competed anyway, helping the U.S. team qualify for Sunday's final.

"I kind of freaked out for just a second," Berens said. "I felt like [the tear] was almost down to my knees. I felt like I was putting on a pretty good show."

He did, but it didn't match the show later.

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