France exacts relay revenge with apropos last lap comeback... You can't say the Olympic gods don't have a sense of humor. Or at least a wicked sense of poetic justice. An epic upset was upturned in the most fitting of ways tonight. Put your allegiances aside for just a moment and smile through the looking glass at the scene.
Four years ago, the greatest race in Olympic swimming history... The men's 4 x 100 free relay in Beijing, back when the Frenchmen were invincible and Phelps's eight gold quest was surely doomed at race number two. And then, Jason Lezak's out-of-body experience. The fastest man on earth, France's Alain Bernard, tracked down over an impossible last lap by Lezak. The post race celebration by Phelps and Co remains the signature moment of those Games.
Fast forward four years. Bernard is gone, so is Lezak from the final, but there's France and Team USA in the center of the pool again, side by side. Except this time, neither was supposed to have a chance. This race was supposed to belong to the Aussies. The squad with the top two ranked men in the world, the foursome that on paper looked unbeatable. (Deja vu, anyone?)
Note to the Aussies: It's very hard to swim fast with your hands wrapped around your throat. It was clear from the first leg that they weren't showing up. Their Missle failed to launch. James Magnussen went 47.1 at Australian Trials, a swim that made him the heavy favorite for gold in the 100 free. He led off in 48.0. He choked. There's no other word for it. So did his mates that came next. But this isn't about them. Turns out they were a mere distraction.
That's the far off truth about revenge, where that cold dish cliché comes from. Revenge is best when you don't see it coming. When you've forgotten all about the pain you caused, when you've moved on, but the victims still simmer. And wait for their time to strike.
The French picked the perfect, cruelest moment. The new king, the greatest swimmer on earth, flipped with a lead with a lap to go. He unleashed his devastating underwater blast and widened it off the wall. The coronation continued. Then something started to happen. Something so twisted and wrong yet right... It was France's turn. Their anchor started to sink Lochte.
This anchor was no no-name. His name is Yannick Agnel and he's the fastest 200 freestyler in the world, the guy who's actually the favorite tomorrow in the final of the men's 200 free. His best time this year is over a second faster than anyone else in 2012 - and that includes the 200 free semifinals tonight. A little detail that won't make much of the mainstream media, yet should be obvious to anyone paying any attention...
Safe to say Agnel's confidence might be surging right about now. His split over that last 100? 46.8. Last 50? 24.6. It wasn't quite Lezak-esque (in Beijing, Lezak was 46.0), but it was more than enough. Fact is, Agnel ended the race with twenty meters to go. He won going away by half a second.
Lochte came home in 47.7. No shame in that, but sure to spark some second guessing. Matt Grevers split 47.5 in the prelims earlier. Many will say he should have been the guy on that relay, not Lochte. But Grevers swam a 100 back semi-final minutes before and no one can deny that Lochte is on as can be this week. The American line-up was the right call. It just wasn't enough.
Yannick Agnel might be the hero tonight, but it's two of his relay mates who are really soaking in this revenge right about now. Four years ago, the French team led off with Amaury Leveaux and followed with Fabien Gilot. This was the exact same front half line-up that France fielded tonight. The pair put the French in contention, a little less than a second back from the Americans after a brilliant second leg split (47.1) from Phelps.
Once again, they were standing there together panting behind the blocks, powerless, waiting for their countrymen to decide their fate.
Like the rest of you, I was screaming for Lochte to pull it out. But the Olympic gods had other ideas.
They cooked up something cold in London.