RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps’ eyes glistened, but no tears came. Not like his younger teammates, who had never won a medal like this before.
No, Phelps smiled and laughed, and he raised his fists in triumph. He’d done this 18 times before, let a gold medal fall against his chest as The Star-Spangled Banner played.
But even so, this 19th gold medal felt different. And special. It was the first one his son, Boomer, got to see, even though the 3-month-old most certainly won’t remember it.
Phelps, 31, turned in a terrific second leg of the Americans’ exhilarating 4×100 freestyle relay, giving his teammates a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Fellow Olympic veteran Nathan Adrian held off the furious French to anchor the U.S. and clinch the Americans’ first gold medal in this event in a major international meet since 2009.
In a most exhilarating fashion, in front of a raucous crowd that had already witnessed three broken world records earlier Sunday night, the U.S. men earned an unexpected gold in their first Olympic relay of these Rio Games. Caeleb Dressel led off with a strong 48.10-second leg, before the greatest Olympian of all time gave America its lead.
Ryan Held contributed the third leg, and a strong close by anchor Adrian in 46.97 secured victory. France took silver, and Australia came from behind to pass Russia for bronze.
“It felt good to get, after my last 400 free relay of my career, this thing around my neck,” Phelps said, glancing down and touching his gold medal. “It feels good to get it back.”
The U.S. men have medaled in every relay event in every Olympics in which they’ve competed. But, due to a rather embarrassing performance a year ago at the world championships in Kazan, Russia — in which a Phelps-less lineup did not even qualify for the final — that relay streak was in real jeopardy.
The world had done more than simply catch up to the American sprinters; it had surpassed them. The Aussies. The Russians. The French.
Yet the U.S. swim team would not give up one of its greatest sources of pride, its relay prowess, without a fight.
“It’s been tough,” Adrian said. “We’re a country that’s so deep in the sprints. We can send 16 guys that are 49-lows up all day every day, but it takes something special to have four guys who are going to be splitting under 48, or 48 low as leadoff.
“We’ve had the depth, but we haven’t had those four guys together at the same time in the same place.”
The first piece to the puzzle was adding Phelps to the mix. He didn’t swim the 100 free at the Olympic trials six weeks ago, so he felt he had to prove his worth to his teammates and not just get hand-picked by the head U.S. men’s coach who just happens to be his longtime personal coach. He wanted to earn the spot — by swimming a time trial last week.
“He proved that he belonged there,” Adrian said. “He obviously proved that he definitely belonged there. He’s the first to say that if he wasn’t in a place to step up and throw an amazing leg down, he would be the first to step down. He’s 100% a team player.
“Seeing what he did throughout training camp — his freestyle was on fire. We knew. We knew.”
Phelps said his 47.12 split was the fastest relay split he’d ever swam in his career, and that he’s happy that he’s starting to close out the final Olympics of his career the way he wants, with gold. Not silver. Not bronze.
It’s fitting that’s the case, Adrian said, considering that’s part of the reason Phelps was selected to be the U.S. Olympic team’s flag bearer at the Games’ opening ceremony to begin with. Adrian, one of the swim team’s captains, was the representative sent to the flag bearer nomination meeting.
“I remember saying, ‘Michael Phelps has set a precedent. Every time we walk on the pool deck, we’re expected to win gold. That’s what he’s done to the Olympic movement,’ ” Adrian said. “We couldn’t be more proud to get up there and do it. That’s what every young American sprinter dreams of doing, winning gold in that 4×100 meter freestyle relay.”