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 Sunday 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 Americans 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 1,200 meters of racing over the first two days, simply didn't have enough left to hold off the towering, 20-year-old Frenchman, one of the sport's real rising stars.
"I gave everything in the last 50 until he cracked," Agnel said. "In the last 10 meters, I saw that he was really cracking."
Agnel touched in 3 minutes, 9.93 seconds, having gone exactly one second faster than Lochte over the last 100 meters. Lochte and the Americans dropped to 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.
"We knew the Australians would be very strong, but they were very nervous, perhaps like us in 2008," said Clement Lefert, who swam the third leg for the French. "We were very relaxed, like the Americans in 2008.
"And four years later," he added, "we got our revenge."
Phelps settled for his 17th career medal — and first silver — to move a step closer to becoming the most decorated Olympian ever.
"At least I'm in a medal today," Phelps said ruefully, referring to a fourth-place finish in his first race of the London Games.
But silver was 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.
"We put out our best four guys and we went out there to try to win it," Lochte said. "But we came up short. So, I mean, I'm kind of bummed because when you go up on the blocks you always want to win. But serving our country, getting a medal, you can't be mad about that."
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 put up the fastest time among the American swimmers, covering the second 100 in 47.15 and showing he still intends to be a force at these games after his disappointing start. Nathan Adrian swam the leadoff leg in 47.89, going out faster than Australian star James "The Missile" Magnussen to give the U.S. an early lead. Cullen Jones was solid, too, in the third spot (47.60).
Lochte was handed a lead of more than a half-second, but he couldn't hold it. Agnel covered the final leg in 46.74, while Lochte labored home in 47.74.
Agnel's anchor wasn't quite as spectacular as Lezak's 46.06 at Beijing, but the French had no complaints.
"It's magical, simply magical," Agnel said. "We didn't have too much pressure. We did what we know how to do. Now, Olympic champions. It's brilliant."
This time, they were the ones on the top step of the podium, looking down at the Americans.
"It's tough," Phelps said. "We'd like to be on top, but Yannick has been swimming well all year and those guys put together a great relay. We tried to get ourselves into as much open water as we could. We had four great guys to get up there and swam as fast as we could. We were the ones that the coaches thought were going to have the best shot. We went out there and raced. That's all you can ask."
The U.S. coaches will surely come under scrutiny for going with Lochte, who had little experience in the 100 free and had never competed on this relay at the Olympics. But, coming off his dominant showing the first night, it's hard to argue about going with a swimmer who appeared to have the hottest hand of all.
Phelps completed his collection of Olympic colors, adding a silver to his 14 golds and two bronzes. He's one away from tying the mark for most career medals held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina and has five more events to take down the record.
In an interesting twist, Bernard will get a gold medal even though he didn't swim the final. Amaury Leveaux and Fabien Gilot took the first two 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.