IT SEEMED a brilliant plot. To counter the blazing speed and avoid the wake of 20-year-old star James (the Missile) Magnussen, Australia's leadoff swimmer in the men's Olympic 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay on Sunday, U.S. coaches packed the front of their team's lineup with their strongest sprinters: Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones. And for three quarters of the race, the plan worked beautifully. When U.S. anchor Ryan Lochte hit the water, he had a lead of more than half a second on France and almost a full second on the favored Australians.
But the scheme had a small flaw: It hadn't accounted for the closing speed of another 20-year-old missile. Lochte took his leg out too fast and faded in the stretch as France's 6'8" Yannick Agnel—like Magnussen a first-time Olympian—torpedoed past him and touched the wall .45 of a second ahead in 3:09.93. With his sizzling split of 46.74 seconds, Agnel had turned the tables on Team USA, which had overtaken France in the same way in the same event four years earlier in Beijing on Jason Lezak's mind-bending final leg, the performance that saved Phelps's bid for eight gold medals.
As the French celebrated on the pool deck in London, Lochte, scarcely 24 hours removed from a dominant 400 individual medley victory that had seemingly confirmed his position as the world's greatest swimmer—and left Phelps stunned in fourth place—stared at the water, another superstar temporarily humbled.
IT WAS quickly apparent in London that the swimming competition, set under a sweeping, English-riding-saddle-shaped roof, wouldn't be about the dominance of one man or even two men, despite the pre-Games buzz about Phelps and Lochte. In Beijing the spotlight had focused so narrowly on Phelps's unprecedented eight-gold haul that it cast into the shadows the rise of other countries' swimmers. In London the new reality would be clearer: America remains the world's No. 1 swimming power, but the days of Phelps-like hegemony are over.
As competition unfolded at the Aquatics Centre, the spotlight shone on a cluster of stars. The U.S. still had its share. Phelps, in his fourth and likely final Games, was on track to pass Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina's career record of 18 total medals. Dana Vollmer, putting behind her a history of injury, illness and disappointment (she missed making the team for Beijing), won the 100 butterfly and became the first woman to break 56 seconds in the event. Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old who was hoping to become the first female swimmer to win seven medals at one Olympics, started her quest with a bronze in the 4 × 100-free relay and a gold in the 100 backstroke. Franklin's victory kicked off a Monday-night U.S. rush in which Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman went 1--2 in the 100 back and Rebecca Soni took silver in the 100 breast.
And then there was Lochte, perhaps the biggest media draw before the Games. Long the runner-up to Phelps in the individual medleys, he had been regularly beating his training-camp spades partner since 2010 and had won the 200 and 400 IMs and the 200 freestyle at the '11 worlds. "This is my year," Lochte would say, almost as a mantra. "I know it and I feel it."
His domination of the 400 IM on the Games' first day was, in fact, less startling than Phelps's struggles in that race. Phelps, the two-time Olympic champion, had only recently returned to the brutally demanding event after vowing four years ago never to swim it again. In London he lollygagged through the morning prelims, earning the eighth and final spot by just .07 of a second. In the final he fell behind on the opening butterfly leg—usually a Phelps strength—and labored as Lochte opened a yawning gap on the field. While Brazil's Thiago Pereira took second place, almost four seconds behind Lochte's 4:05.18 (the second-fastest time in history), Phelps touched fourth, behind 17-year-old bronze medalist Kosuke Hagino of Japan.
It was the first time Phelps had failed to crack the top three in an Olympic race since he finished fifth in the 200 butterfly in Sydney as a 15-year-old. The first swimmer to climb out of the pool afterward, Phelps walked slowly away from it, never looking back. "It's weird not having Michael next to me on the medal stand," said Lochte later.
Neither Phelps nor his coach, Bob Bowman, had any explanation for his sluggishness. "Just a crappy race," said Phelps. "They swam a better race than me, swam a smarter race than me and were more prepared."
Phelps bounced back in the 4 × 100 free relay, swimming the second leg in a team-leading split of 47.15. But this time, the game-saving hero was on another team. "We can't complain about a silver," said Phelps. "This is my first silver."