France's Clement Lefert, Amaury Leveaux and Fabien Gilot celebrate… (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP /…)
LONDON — We interrupt the coronation of Ryan Lochte to ask whether he had any business representing his country in the marquee relay of the Olympic Games.
Lochte might be America's best swimmer, but he blew the lead -- and the gold medal -- in the final leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay on Sunday.
France won, leaving second place and second-guessing to the Americans.
From the French perspective, this was a glorious response, four years in the making. After Jason Lezak delivered a miracle final leg in a come-from-behind U.S. victory over France four years ago, Yannick Agnel did the same for France against the Americans.
From the American perspective, there was Michael Phelps, cradling a silver medal that dangled from a necklace of purple ribbon.
"This is my first silver," he said.
That silver -- to go with 14 golds and two bronzes -- moves him to within one of tying the career record for Olympic medals. He said he could not complain about winning a medal, but he hardly embraced its color.
"It is very frustrating," he said. "This will be something that will motivate us."
So might the performance of Dana Vollmer, who set a world record in winning the women's 100 butterfly, the second gold for the U.S. Vollmer swam the race in 55.98 seconds, becoming the first American woman -- and second overall -- to establish a world record since the high-tech swimsuits were banned but the records set in them were not.
"Being the Olympic champion is most important," she said. "The world record is the icing on the cake."
Vollmer, a former Cal swimmer, failed to qualify for Beijing four years ago. She expanded her training from swimming to include hip-hop dance, yoga and Pilates, switched to a gluten-free diet and did not shy from publicly stating her goal of breaking the 56-second barrier.
"I know I can be faster," she said.
Allison Schmitt set an American record in winning silver in the women's 400 freestyle, behind Camille Muffat of France. Brendan Hansen won bronze in the 100 breaststroke, duplicating his finish in the 2004 Olympics. He finished fourth in the event in 2008.
The relay that ended in disappointment started, well, swimmingly.
Nathan Adrian swam the first leg, giving the U.S. the lead. Phelps swam the second leg, redeeming himself for a dismal Saturday by tripling the lead. Cullen Jones swam the third leg, maintaining a comfortable lead.
Lochte had 100 meters to victory. He lost the lead within 50 meters and had nothing left.
"The 100 free, I don't really swim it," Lochte said. "I haven't swam it in a long time. I think I was just really excited. I overswam the first 50, which kind of hurt me for the last 50.
"You would think, doing distance events, I wouldn't get tired, but sprinting definitely takes a lot out of you."
U.S. Coach Gregg Troy spotted trouble in Lochte's first few strokes.
"That's not his race," Troy said. "The first 50 was way too fast for him. Coaching error."
Troy, who is Lochte's personal coach as well as the national team coach, insisted the error was in failing to prepare Lochte properly for the race, not in choosing him to swim an unfamiliar race.
"I'm pretty content with the race we swam," Troy said. "I just wish we would have swam a smarter race."
Adrian and Jones finished 1-2 in the 100 free at the U.S. Olympic trials, and Phelps is proven at that distance. That left Troy with the choice of Lochte, perhaps the best overall U.S. swimmer, and Matt Grevers, who finished third in the 100 free at the trials and swam his leg of the morning preliminaries in 47.54 seconds. Teams can change any or all swimmers between preliminaries and finals.
"No hard feelings," Grevers said. "You've got to gamble here. Those four guys have the capability to go faster."
Lochte posted a 47.74. However, even a 47.54 leg would not have been sufficient to hold off Agnel, whose 46.74 time was reminiscent of the 46.06 posted by Lezak four years ago.
"You can't predict a 46.6," Jones said. "That's definitely Superman level."
France won in 3 minutes 9.93 seconds, followed by the U.S. at 3:10.38 and Russia at 3:11.41. The favored Australians did not win a medal, finishing fourth in 3:11.63.
The U.S. won the event the first seven times it was contested, but since then the Americans have lost three of four -- to Australia in 2000, to South Africa in 2004, and to France on Sunday. Without Lezak, the supposed most powerful swimming nation on the planet would be riding a 16-year losing streak in the most prominent relay in the Olympics.
Phelps dodged a question about the coincidence of losing to France in the same way the French lost to the Americans four years ago
"Uh ... uh ... it's tough. I don't really know what to say," Phelps said. "I know, but I'm not going to say it."
Jimmy Feigen, who swam with Grevers in the preliminaries, was not quite so reticent.
"I guess they got their revenge," Feigen said. "Good for them. I'm glad I got to listen to their anthem."
A hint of a smile appeared on his face.
"I hope we don't have to hear it again," he said.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
Women's 400m freestyle
G Camille Muffat, France, 4:01.45 (Olympic record)
S Allison Schmitt, United States, 4:01.77 (American record)
B Rebecca Adlington, Britain, 4:03.01
Men's 4x100m freestyle relay
G France, 3:09.93
S United States, 3:10.38
B Russia, 3:11.41
Men's 100m breaststroke
G Cameron van der Burgh, Russia, 58.46 (world record)
S Christian Sprenger, Australia, 58.93
B Brendan Hansen, United States, 59.49
Women's 100m butterfly
G Dana Vollmer, United States, 55.98 (world record)
S Lu Ying, China, 56.87
B Alicia Coutts, Australia, 56.94