LONDON — Payback. This time, it was France chasing down the United States — and Ryan Lochte, no less — to win another riveting relay at the Olympics.
With Michael Phelps looking much stronger than he did the night before, the Americans built a commanding lead over the first three legs of the 400-meter freestyle relay and never really had to worry about the defending world champions from Australia.
When Lochte dove into the water on the anchor leg, he was a half-body length ahead of the field and looking to add another gold to his dominating victory Saturday in the 400 individual medley.
Not so fast.
Or should we say not nearly fast enough.
Yannick Agnel, playing the chaser role that Jason Lezak did for the American four years ago in this same event, sliced through the water and was right on Lochte's shoulder as they made the flip at the far end of the pool. With about 25 meters to go, they were stroke for stroke. But Lochte, who had already competed in the 200 free prelims in the morning and in the semifinals about 90 minutes earlier, simply didn't have enough left to hold off the towering, 20-year-old Frenchman.
Agnel touched in 3 minutes, 9.93 seconds, having gone exactly a second faster than Lochte over the last 100 meters. Lochte and the Americans settled for silver in 3:10.38, while Australia — the favorite — didn't even get a medal. Russia took the bronze in 3:11.41, edging the team from Down Under by 0.22 for the last spot on the podium.
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But silver was also a bitter disappointment for the Americans, who now know how the French felt four years ago.
France had the lead in Beijing and its best sprinter, Alain Bernard, going out on the final leg. But Lezak swam the fastest relay leg in history, drafting Bernard along the lane rope and beating him by a scant 0.08 seconds to keep Phelps on track for his record eight gold medals.
It was one of the greatest races in Olympic history.
This one wasn't too shabby, either.
Lochte hung on the side of the wall, his head dropping toward the water — a much different reaction than he had the night before when he blew out the field in the 400 IM. Phelps stared at the scoreboard for a good 10 seconds before going over to congratulate the French.
Phelps still won the 17th Olympic medal of his career — and first silver, to go along with 14 golds and two bronzes. He's one away from tying the mark for most career medals held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. Phelps has five more events to break the record.
In an interesting twist, Bernard will get a gold medal even though he didn't swim the final. Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot and Clement Lefert took the first three legs, but Bernard will be rewarded, too, for taking part in the morning prelims. Maybe that will soothe some bitter feelings from four years ago.