We used to take their dominance for granted. But after the events that unfolded in Shanghai on the opening day of swimming the 2011 FINA World Aquatics Championships, the four-year reign of the American men as the kings of the pool is undisputed no longer. After going undefeated in every relay they had contested since 2007 — at the Olympics, at worlds, in other international competitions and regardless the discipline or distance — the Yankee quartet could only manage bronze this time around.
And to put it even further into perspective, the only reason the streak didn’t last longer was that the 4×100 medley relay team faulted on a pass and were disqualified in the preliminary heats of the 2007 worlds in Melbourne. This time around there was no excuse for defeat; the Americans were in the starting blocks, and they failed to deliver.
This all comes down to speed. The Australians had it in droves, with every one of their four guys posting sub-48 second times. The French, who slotted into the silver spot thanks in no small part to anchor Fabien Gilot’s blistering 47.22, the fastest 100 split of the finals, were only hamstrung by leadoff Alain Bernard’s anemic pace at the beginning and otherwise might be champions.
The Americans, from top to bottom in their rotation, had no answers on Sunday. Michael Phelps led things off with a 48.06 first leg — good enough for second at the change, but hardly his best effort. Garrett Weber-Gale and Jason Lezak were even slower.
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Only Nathan Adrian, swimming the anchor leg, managed a split lower than 48 seconds. By that point, though, he had to — anything less and the Americans might have missed the podium altogether. Italy’s Filippo Magnini swam even faster in the final leg than Adrian, coming within 28-hundredths of a second from the bronze.
What does this all mean for the American men? Perhaps time has passed this nucleus by, left them gasping for air as they sink back toward normalcy. The one inevitable truth in sports is that greatness can never last forever.
Of the four men in yesterday’s relay, only Adrian is under 25 years old. Phelps and Weber-Gale are both 26. Lezak is 35. And Ryan Lochte, who swam in the preliminary heat but not the final, is a week from turning 27.
In sheer chronology, none of these men are old. But in the pool they are elder statesmen. Contrast the average age with the new world champions. James Magnussen is 20. Matthew Targett is 25. Matthew Abood, the eldest, is 26. And anchor Eamon Sullivan is 25 as well.
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It isn’t as though this is a case of midnight striking, carriages turning to pumpkins and whatnot. Despite time and other teams catching up to them, the Americans are still among the three best teams in the world even when they’re swimming less than their best.
But what Sunday’s result illustrates all too clearly is that the Americans can no longer expect simply to jump in the pool and automatically grab gold. The Australians and the French have proven that they are formidable enough to remain in contention through next year’s Olympics and beyond.
So while it may be too soon to call the Americans washed-up in the water, we can say that they’re going to be challenged more rather than less moving forward. The aura of invincibility was cracked finally in Shanghai.