France engineered an epic upset in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay on Sunday, one of two French golds on a pulsating night of action in the Olympic pool where two world records fell.
Yannick Agnel powered past US star Ryan Lochte on the final 50m of the closing relay leg as France won the coveted 4x100m relay gold for the first time in 3 minutes, 9.93 seconds.
“I did my utmost and tried to hold on until Lochte cracked,” Agnel said.
The US’ second-placed finish gave Michael Phelps a first career silver medal to go with his 14 gold and two bronze.
He now needs just two medals to surpass the record 18 career total amassed by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.
Russia took bronze over a stunned Australia, whose vaunted James “The Missile” Magnussen and James “The Rocket” Roberts failed to fire.
“I did a 47.3 this morning and it was the easiest swim I have done in months,” Magnussen said. “I don’t know, I just couldn’t back up tonight maybe, it just took a bit out of the tank this morning.”
The victory was redemption of a sort for France, who went into the same race as favorites in Beijing four years ago, only to see veteran Jason Lezak’s miraculous final-leg swim deliver victory to the US and keep Phelps’ bid for eight gold medals alive.
“What happened four years ago, that was really tough,” said Fabien Gilot, who swam the second leg after Amaury Leveaux led off with Clement Lefert taking the third leg. “This is an extraordinary revenge.”
The win was also part of a French festival at the Aquatics Centre, where Camille Muffat won the women’s 400m freestyle in an Olympic record of 4:01.45.
Allison Schmitt of the US was second in 4:01.77 and 2008 Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington of Britain stormed home in lane eight for bronze in 4:03.01 to the deafening cheers of the home crowd.
Dana Vollmer of the US opened the action with a 100m butterfly triumph in a world record time of 55.98 seconds, becoming the first woman to dip under 56 seconds in the event.
Cameron van der Burgh followed with an emotional world record-setting triumph in the 100m breaststroke, which he dedicated to late training partner Alexander Dale Oen of Norway.
Van der Burgh led from start to finish, winning in 58.46 seconds to improve on the previous world mark of 58.58 seconds held by Australian Brenton Rickard.
“If there is such a thing as the perfect race, I think I swam it at the right time tonight,” said Van der Burgh, who became the first South African man to win an individual Olympic swimming gold.
He said it was the gold, and not the record, that mattered most.
“I don’t really care about the world record,” said Van der Burgh, who finished ahead of Australian Christian Sprenger and Brendan Hansen of the US. “Once you have become an Olympic champion that can never be taken away from you.”
However, Van der Burgh’s joy was tempered by his memories of Dale Oen, who was at an Arizona training camp in April when he died of heart failure as the result of a blood clot.
He said his parents had been sitting with the Norwegian swimmer’s parents at the Games.
“There is not much you can say to them, but I’d just like to celebrate the guy’s life by winning a gold medal,” he said.
Japanese breaststroke king Kosuke Kitajima’s bid to become the first man to win the same Olympic swimming event at three straight Games evaporated in the blistering pace set by Van der Burgh.