LONDON — Michael Phelps has yet to win a gold medal, and Ryan Lochte’s star is fading. So along came Missy Franklin to restore American swim hopes with a gutty performance at the Olympics on Monday night.
Coming back less than 14 minutes after swimming a semifinal heat, the Colorado teenager won the first gold medal of what figures to be a dazzling career, rallying to win the 100-meter backstroke.
“Indescribable,” the 17-year-old Franklin said. “I still can’t believe that happened. I don’t even know what to think. I saw my parents’ reaction on the screen and I just started bawling. I can’t even think right now.”
Matt Grevers kept the gold medals coming in rat-a-tat fashion, following up Franklin’s win with one of his own in the men’s 100 back. For good measure, Nick Thoman made it a 1-2 finish for the red, white and blue by taking the silver.
Rebecca Soni nearly pulled out a third U.S. gold, rallying furiously on the return leg of the 100 breaststroke. But she couldn’t quite catch blazing Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, a gold medalist at the tender age of 15.
Good thing for the U.S. that Franklin and the other Americans are coming through.
Phelps missed the podium in his 2012 Olympic debut, and Lochte has turned two straight disappointing performances after opening the games with a dominant win in the 400 individual medley. He finished fourth and off the podium Monday night in the 200 freestyle, which France’s Yannick Agnel won by a full body length against a field with gold medalists galore.
On Sunday, Lochte anchored the U.S. in the 4x100 free relay, taking over with a seemingly comfortable lead. But Agnel chased him down on the final leg, giving France the gold.
Franklin, who was rattled less than two weeks before the Olympics by the Aurora theater shooting not far from her home, showed resiliency, racing with a short break after the semis of the 200 freestyle.
She barely advanced in the first race, qualifying for Tuesday night’s final with the eighth-fastest time, but she was clearly saving something for the one with a medal on the line.
Australia’s Emily Seebohm, the top qualifier, led at the turn and was under world-record pace, but Franklin showed a remarkable finishing kick. With her arms whirling, the 6-foot-1 swimmer passed the Aussie in the final 25 meters and lunged toward the wall for a winning time of 58.33 seconds.
She broke into a big smile but was clearly exhausted, her head dropping back against the wall. Seebohm settled for silver in 58.68 and Japan’s Aya Terakawa took bronze in 58.83.
“You never know until you see that scoreboard, so I was just going as fast as I could until I got my hand on the wall,” Franklin said. “It was 110 percent effort, and all the work paid off.”
The 6-foot-8 Grevers pulled off a similar rally on his return lap, winning the 100 back in 52.16 – the fifth straight Olympics that the U.S. men have won the backstroke. Thoman joined his teammate on the medal podium at 52.97, a finish they were thinking about all along.
“Going into the ready room, we were both just sitting there and we shared a look and shared a thought,” Thoman said. “I think that was in both of our heads.”
Japan’s Ryosuke Irie was third in 52.97.
“I’ve been watching the Olympics for as long as I can remember,” Thoman said. “The first one I really remember is the ‘92 Barcelona Games and just watching guys back then. Seeing Lenny Krayzelburg, my idol, and then Aaron Piersol, again my idol, who I got to train with for a little while. Just being able to carry on that tradition, it’s a great thing.”
Agnel showed that his brilliant swim on the Olympic relay was no fluke. The 6-foot-6 Frenchman did it again in the 200 free, leading from start to finish in perhaps the most star-studded race of these games — even without Phelps, who passed up a chance to defend his Olympic title.
That might have been a good move by Phelps. It was hard to see anyone beating Agnel on this night, as he pulled away to win by a full body length in 1 minute, 43.14 seconds. No one came close to challenging him, and he looked just as strong at the end as he did at the beginning.
South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan and China’s Sun Yang tied for the silver in 1:44.93. But Lochte, the reigning world champion who seemed poised to have a huge Olympics just 48 hours earlier, faded out of the medals. So did world-record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany.