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By John Lohn
LONDON, England, July 29. IF any country in the world wanted revenge for a devastating loss, it was France. Everyone remembers what happened at the Beijing Games in 2008, when Jason Lezak reeled in Alain Bernard over the final lap to hand the United States the gold medal in the 400 freestyle relay. Four years later, it was France which pulled the rug out from underneath the Americans.
Behind a Lezak-esque split from anchor Yannick Agnel, who was clocked in 46.74, France went ahead of the United States in the closing strokes and prevailed in 3:09.93. The United States, with Ryan Lochte handling the anchor leg, touched the wall in 3:10.38. It was scary, really, how much the race resembled the events of 2008, but in reverse fashion.
I'll be the first one to admit having this race pegged incorrectly. All along, Australia was touted as unbeatable, thanks to its pair of 47-point superstars in James Magnussen and James Roberts. But the Australians absolutely bombed out, and it started with Magnussen leading off in a time that was nearly a second slower than the 47.10 he popped at the Aussie Trials.
With Australia out of the picture, the duel came down to the United States and France. Perhaps it was fitting the race unfolded in that manner. After all, the Beijing meeting has become part of swimming lore and is regularly talked about. You can guarantee this race, too, will be frequently discussed. Gather around the water cooler on Monday. You'll see.
In a flip flop from 2008, the United States jumped out to a sizable lead, riding the backs of Nathan Adrian and Michael Phelps on the first two legs, opposed by the French duo of Amaury Leveaux and Fabien Gilot. But in the second half of the race, Cullen Jones and Lochte were caught by terrific outings by Clement Lefert and Agnel.
“It was a change from four years ago,” Leveaux said. “Now we're in front and it's incredible. We were under pressure because we wanted to win for each other. It was a form of revenge.”
Some will say Lochte was a bad choice for the anchor leg, but such a commentary is not accurate. While he split 47.74, which was slightly slower than what Matt Grevers went in the morning prelims, putting Grevers on the team wasn't going to change the outcome. For that to happen, he would have had to been nearly a half-second faster.
“We are the four best guys,” Lochte said. “We went out there to win, but we came up short.”
More, Lochte is the world's best swimmer and you have to go with a guy who is hot and established on the biggest stage. Lochte fit both descriptions and did everything in his power to fend off Agnel. Ultimately, the race didn't come down to Lochte. It came down to France putting together four slightly better legs than the United States.
What a way to find atonement.
**Give Dana Vollmer credit: Not only did she capture the first individual gold medal of her Olympic career and set a world record of 55.98, she made history in a little different fashion than we're accustomed from seeing from the 24-year-old.
Vollmer is known for her explosive stars and pushing the pace during the opening lap, then holding on over the final 15 meters as fatigue sets in. En route to her gold medal, Vollmer was still out quickly, but it wasn't as ferocious as normal. That approach enabled the Cal Aquatics star to remain strong and pull away as the field neared the wall.
It's risky to change an approach, even slightly, in a big meet, let alone the Olympics. But Vollmer had the confidence in her ability to make an alteration and it paid off in a big way. Really, she could have stuck to her original plan and won gold anyway. The switcheroo, however, is likely what handed her the world record and historic breaking of the 56-second barrier.
**In the same race, Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom was fourth, which is becoming a common place for the teenager. Sjostrom was fourth and just shy of a medal in three events at last year's World Championships. Sjostrom still has the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle events to come.
**The way Cameron van der Burgh races is almost difficult to believe. The South African carries so much speed and takes no time getting into high gear, which paid off with a gold medal and world record in the 100 breaststroke. Van der Burgh was phenomenal, winning in 58.46. It was one of the more dominant showings of the meet.
Still, just as big a story in the race was Brendan Hansen coming out of Lane Eight to win the bronze medal, making his comeback that much more special. After despising the sport after the Beijing Games, which led to his retirement, Hansen has spent the last 18 months with a renewed love for the pool. That was evident in the way he carried himself after the race, beaming ear to ear after holding off Hungary's Daniel Gyurta for the bronze.
Hansen became just the 13th 30-something man to win an Olympic medal in swimming, proof that excellence can extend into later years. His effort is also going to provide a massive surge of confidence for the 400 medley relay.
**Through two days of action, here's the breakdown on the medal count. The Pacific Rim and Americas have each won nine medals, with Europe checking in with five medals. Africa has won one medal, the gold by Cameron van der Burgh.
Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn