Jul 29, 2012; London, United Kingdom; (L to R) Adrian Nathan - Ryan Lochte - Cullen Jones and Michael Phelps celebrate after winning the silver medal in the men's 4x100m freestyle finals during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY
LONDON - Cullen Jones touched the wall, knowing he'd delivered the lead to Ryan Lochte with 100 meters to go. Jones told himself, Get out of the pool so you don't miss the pictures.
That's how sure Jones was - and how close the American men were to winning the 4x100-meter freestyle relay Sunday night at the London Aquatics Centre.
But Lochte got beat by a 46.74-second anchor leg by France's Yannick Agnel, who out-touched the American at the wall. The stunning comeback was nearly a mirror image of what American anchor Jason Lezak did to the French freestylers back in 2008.
"I can definitely appreciate irony," Jones said. "To a certain degree, I was like, 'Ooh, payback.' "
Agnel's anchor leg wasn't quite historic (like Lezak's 46.06), but Jones called it 'superman-level.'
"(Agnel) has always scared me because he looks so good in the water, and he's 6-7," U.S. assistant coach Eddie Reese said. "Is 'pissed me off' legal to say? I didn't like it but I give him credit. He was awesome."
The Americans ended up with the silver medal, which was largely what was expected of them entering these Games. Russia claimed bronze, and the Australians, heavy favorites in the 4x100 free relay, didn't end up on the podium.
Ultimately, the race was the Americans' to lose. They had the lead from the start, and didn't lose it until the final 50.
Nathan Adrian beat the world's best 100-meter freestyler, Australian James Magnussen, in the first leg (47.89) to give the U.S. a slim lead. Michael Phelps then swam the Americans' fastest split (47.15) and extended that lead to nearly three-quarters of a second.
"Nathan swam a great opening leg," said Phelps, who added that he'd been practicing relay exchanges from Adrian for awhile. "It put us out in the open water and I just tried to give us even more open water."
The lead dwindled to about half a second by the end of Jones' leg, but the swimmers all felt confident that margin was enough for Lochte to bring home the gold.
When it didn't work, the composition and order of the relay was questioned. None of the freestylers who swam in Sunday morning's preliminary heat were chosen to compete in the final, including Matt Grevers who had the fastest split (47.54, two-tenths of a second faster than Lochte's).
Lochte didn't swim the 100 free at trials last month, and his personal coach said after that Lochte's inexperience with the event led him to overswim the first 50 meters.
But the coaches went with Lochte, fresh off his 400-meter individual medley gold medal, as well as Phelps, who desperately needed to rebound from his disappointing fourth-place finish in the 400 IM. Live and die with your stars, the motto appeared to be.
"We discussed it and looked at all possible angles, and this is what we came up with," U.S. coach Gregg Troy said. Troy said he wouldn't have changed the order of the relay.
Said Lochte: "We had our best four guys, and we went out there to win it, but we came up short."
All four Americans posted splits under 48 seconds, a point that Jones emphasized to show that it was a strong relay overall. The U.S. team had a strategy to neutralize the greatest threat on the Australian team, but couldn't foresee the late push by the French. "You can't predict a 46.7," Jones put it.
Dating back to 1964 (excluding the boycotted 1980 Games), the Americans have medaled in every Olympic 4x100 free relay since the event debuted in 1964. But in the last four Olympics, the U.S. has won just one gold - the Lezak leg in 2008.
"The world's getting faster," Jones said. "That race has never been easy for us. 2000, 2004, 2008 - it's never been easy. Now, we can add 2012 - still, not easy."
By Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY