KAZAN, Russia — The final of the men’s 200-meter backstroke at the FINA World Championships went off Friday night with two Americans in the field of eight, the last line of defense for a legacy under global assault. For 20 consecutive years, the United States has claimed victory in this event in the year’s biggest international meet, whether an Olympics, a Pan Pacific Championships or worlds. The last time the Americans failed to win, at the world championships in 1994, the kid in Lane 5 on Friday night, Ryan Murphy, hadn’t been born.
But after Murphy faded from third to fifth on the final lap and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary failed to make a move out of seventh place, the U.S. not only had failed to win gold for the first time in 20 years, it had failed to reach the medal stand.
The loss symbolizes a sobering reality that has spread across the once-mighty U.S. swimming program here this week: The world has caught up to the Americans and, in many cases, has passed them — a trend that appears especially pronounced in the case of the men’s program.
“I don’t think anyone would say that overall the men are having a great meet,” Murphy, 20, said after Friday night’s race. “But it’s not like we’re going out there and not trying.”
When the world championships end Sunday, Katie Ledecky, the 18-year-old Bethesda native who is laying waste to the women’s record book, almost certainly will be taking five gold medals home with her — only the 800 freestyle, an event she dominates, remains — but her towering achievements won’t be able to obscure the overall disappointing showing of the rest of the U.S. team.
Through Friday night, when five more finals went off without an American victory, veteran Ryan Lochte had the only other individual gold medal for the United States, having won the 200 individual medley Thursday. Though the United States still led the overall medal count at the end of Friday’s session with 14 (five golds), its final numbers will be far below previous world championship hauls. In 2013, the most recent worlds held in Barcelona, the U.S. won 29 medals, including 13 golds.
While it’s true Michael Phelps isn’t here, losing his spot on the team following his DUI last September — and the presence of the most decorated Olympian of all time would undoubtedly help — he also wasn’t on the U.S. team for worlds in 2013 — while still retired — and Team USA hardly missed him.
“I really don’t know what to say about what I’ve seen over there,” Phelps said Wednesday in San Antonio, where he is swimming in the U.S. national championships this week. “It’s an interesting place for USA Swimming to be in because we’ve never been in it. We’ve never been in a spot where we’re trying to get back to the top.”
The team selection process, in which USA Swimming picks its roster a year in advance of worlds, is under increasing scrutiny. It left swimmers such as Phelps and 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin at home and created an awkward scenario here, where Murphy failed to make the U.S. roster in the 100-meter backstroke, then raced backstroke in the first leg of a 4x100-meter mixed medley relay and posted a time — 52.18 seconds — that would have won gold in the 100 back.
“There’s been a lot of doubt towards [the U.S.] at this meet,” said Canadian sprinter Santo Condorelli. “A lot of people are scrutinizing the fact they picked the team a year ahead.”
On Sunday, the opening night of the meet, the United States failed to make the finals of the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay, an event the Americans had won in 12 of the previous 15 world championships.
“It’s kind of shocking we don’t have a relay [team] that can go faster than that,” Phelps said.
On Monday night, the United States was shut out completely, with the women’s 100 butterfly and men’s 100 breaststroke going off without a single American in the finals.
On Tuesday night, the same night Ledecky won gold and set a world record in the 1,500 free, four other 2012 Olympic gold medalists swam in finals for the U.S. at Kazan Arena. Three failed to medal; Matt Grevers took bronze in the men’s 100 backstroke, an event he won in London.
On Friday night, about two hours after Clary and Murphy were shut out, the United States appeared set to earn a measure of redemption in the 4x200 freestyle relay — an event the U.S. has won at every major international meet since 2004 — but Britain’s James Guy made up a 1.63-second deficit on U.S. anchor Michael Weiss, pushing the Americans to the silver.
“We came up short,” said Lochte, who swam the leadoff leg. “But we’re going to definitely remember this and hopefully train our butts off all next year and hopefully not let that happen again.”
The rise of the British in swimming appears to be directly related to the slipping of the U.S. Two years ago at worlds, Britain won only one medal, a bronze. But through Friday, it had equaled the United States with five golds and ranks third overall (behind the U.S. and Australia) in overall medals with eight.
One bright spot for the U.S. on Friday was Nathan Adrian’s sizzling swim in the 50 freestyle semifinals — a 21.37 that represented both the best time in the world this year and an American record.
Frank Busch, USA Swimming’s national team director, acknowledged the inherent problems of picking a world championships team a year in advance but stopped short of saying the system would be re-examined.
“When you choose a team a year away, we always have these issues that arise,” he said. “Some people swim faster at [the World University Games], and some people swim faster at the Pan Am Games, which is expected. And you’re going to see some people swim faster at nationals. This probably isn’t our best team, but that’s how it goes. We’re certainly not apologizing for it. It’s just the nature of the way we prepare for the four-year cycle.”
Around Kazan Arena, U.S. swimmers and coaches have remained largely upbeat, at least publicly, about what appears to everyone else to be a disappointing showing — pointing to the fact the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics are still a year away and there is plenty of time to recover.
“We all know our priority is to get to the Olympics next year,” said Missy Franklin, who won six gold medals at worlds in 2013 but has only one here, in the 4x200 relay. She will have another chance Saturday in the finals of the women’s 200 backstroke. “Sometimes we get disappointed, and so do our fans. But we’re doing the best we can.”
But the stream of disappointing results — and the resulting stream of questions from the media — also appears to be taking a toll on the Americans. Asked by a Reuters reporter about the struggles of the U.S. team, Clary snapped, “I’m tired about hearing how the Americans are doing here. One year from now [at Rio], no one will be talking about what happened here. I am tired of some of the negative comments. We’re all sticking together as a team.”