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Phelps captures 19th gold as U.S. wins 4x100 freestyle relay

Michael Phelps hugs his teammate Caeleb Dressel after the medal ceremony for the men's 4x100-meter freestyle final. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 8, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps - standing on a pool deck, thrusting sinewy arms into the air and letting out a wail - was gold, again.

Phelps simultaneously opened his Olympic swim meet and extended his unassailable Olympic legend Sunday night, swimming the second leg of the United States' victorious 4x100-meter freestyle relay team. He joined Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held and anchor Nathan Adrian in a dominant performance, in which the featured event of an electric night at Olympic Aquatics Stadium was the Americans to lose after Phelps gave them the lead.

The Americans won this gold in 3 minutes, 9.92 seconds - holding off France with Adrian's brilliant closing leg of 46.97 seconds - with Australia 1.45 seconds back for bronze.

Yet when Phelps is in the pool, the event becomes about Phelps. So the new tally, which should increase this week: 23 Olympic medals, 19 of them golds - both records.

Phelps put them in position to dominate, because when he made his turn after one length of the pool, he gave the Americans a cushion they wouldn't give up. His leg was 47.12 seconds - remarkable for an athlete who doesn't specialize in such short distances.

How to call the 4x100 the featured event when so much else happened Sunday? Three world records were toppled - one by Bethesda's Katie Ledecky in the women's 400 freestyle, one by Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom in the women's 100 butterfly, and one by Great Britain's Adam Peaty in the men's 100 breaststroke. The United States picked up three bronzes: Dana Vollmer behind Sjostrom, Cody Miller behind Peaty and Leah Smith, from the University of Virginia, behind Ledecky.

But the relay had it all: the star power, the competition, the characters. The event has provided some of the most indelible moments in the history of not just swimming, but the Olympics, full stop.

Eight years ago in Beijing, when Phelps needed help if he was to fulfill his quest to win an unprecedented eight gold medals in eight events, Olympic veteran Jason Lezak, then 32, saved him. Phelps swam a terrific opening leg, and then had to watch anxiously for nearly three more minutes. When Lezak entered the water for the anchor leg, he trailed the French team by more than half a second. His opponent was Alain Bernard, then the world record holder in the 100 free. And Lezak simply tracked him down, swimming a transcendent leg of 46.06 seconds, out-touching Bernard to preserve Phelps's pursuit.

Four years ago in London, the French gained retribution. Phelps, swimming second after Adrian, turned in a leg of 47.15 seconds, fastest for the Americans on the night. Ryan Lochte, swimming the anchor leg, was handed a lead of more than half a second. And Yannick Agnel, anchoring the French team, delivered a leg of 46.74 seconds, a full second better than Lochte. The French took gold; the United States silver. In nine Olympic relays to that point, it was just the second time Phelps hadn't taken gold.

There was, too, a bit of an odd recent history. At last year's world championships in Kazan, neither the Australians nor the Americans, with a team of James Feigin, Anthony Ervin, Matt Grevers and Conor Dwyer, failed to so much as advance to the eight-team final of the event.

"That's ancient history," Ervin said after the prelims Sunday afternoon.

Sure, but it was an element in the mix - though the mix here was decidedly different. After a team of Feigin, Ryan Held, Blake Pieroni and Ervin topped the Aussies in the prelims, Adrian, the reigning Olympic champion in the 100 free, was the obvious choice to start the final. But there were lots of other elements to consider.

"We have so many good choices," Pieroni said.

Could Ervin, who turned in the Americans' fastest leg in the morning but is 35 and specializes in the 50 free, endure another two lengths of the pool? Where to swim Phelps, who hadn't as much as posted a time in the 100 free at U.S. trials, but whose status and cache are obvious? Start with Dressel, whose first Olympic swim would thus be leading off a relay?

And then, there lurked the Australians, who had similarly responded from last year's disappointment in Kazan. Cameron McEvoy had the world's fastest 100 time this year (47.04), ahead of Adrian's swim from American trials. Kyle Chalmers, too, threatened to swim something in the low 47s. The French couldn't be dismissed, either, because they were the defending Olympic and world champions, and they had three swimmers ranked in the top 10 in the 100 free, though none in the top four.

So the night built to that event, the last of the evening. Yet even before the relay, there were moments that resonated in vastly different ways. When Vollmer gave birth to a son last year, she was already a decorated Olympian, four times a gold medal winner, including in the 100 butterfly four years ago in London. But she decided to come back and try for the Rio Olympics at 28.

"I didn't know if I was going to get here or not," Vollmer said.

She did, and was a key member of the American women's 4x100 relay team that took silver Saturday night. Sunday was all about her own pursuit, though: the 100 fly, again. She had no real shot at taking down Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom, who broke her own world record in 55.48 seconds for gold. She fought to keep up with Canada's Penny Oleksiak, who took silver. When she touched in 56.63, she whipped her head around: bronze.

"I feel like I'm more appreciative of every single moment that I have out here," Vollmer said. ". . . Like a personal gold for me."

There was, too, the specter of Russia's Yulia Efimova, who had been originally banned from these Games in the wake of the widespread doping scandal that engulfed her country, back in the pool. Efimova won her semifinal heat of the 100 breaststroke and extended her index finger - No. 1. American Lily King, whose time in the other semi beat Efimova's by two-hundredths of a second, shook her finger at the television screen, which was caught by cameras.

"You're shaking your finger 'No. 1,' and you've been caught for drug cheating," King told NBC. "I'm just not a fan."

Phelps, though, has his fans. He has more events to swim here, more medals to win - and a legacy that is completely secure every time he swims.

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