SHANGHAI — Usually the three men on the pool deck as the last American comes home in the 4-by-100-meter relay look possessed, as if their urging, roaring, waving and praying could somehow get the last guy to the wall faster. On Sunday, Michael Phelps and his two teammates stood virtually silent as Nathan Adrian finished his swim, Phelps offering weak applause as Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale stared at the scoreboard, mouths agape.
Third place. And it wasn't a contest.
What a way to kick off the swimming world championships, the final major tune-up for the 2012 London Summer Games. Ending a streak of six straight gold medals in major events, the U.S. men put forward a performance that left them, their coaches and teammates shell-shocked. And mad. And worse.
"Truly," said Weber-Gale, "I feel sick about it."
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Moments after the U.S. women lost the lead — and earned the silver — on the final leg of their relay, the once-dominant U.S. men never led and finished in 3 minutes, 11.96 seconds at the Oriental Sports Center, behind the Australians (3:11.00) and French (3:11.14).
"It stinks," Phelps said flatly moments after the race.
He then added later, "As Americans, we want to win everything we do. We want to be the best. ... We all know we can be better than that."
The race featured a good start by Phelps, two substandard legs from Weber-Gale and Lezak, and a strong but not superb finish by Adrian. It also featured Ryan Lochte, a star of the '09 world championship relay, relegated to only the preliminary round Sunday morning; his time then was not fast enough to get him onto the night's squad.
But it looked like the United States could have used him. Weber-Gale misjudged his speed at the start, going out too slowly, and Lezak, a swimmer who relies on heavy rotation in his stroke, got pushed around like a buoy by the waves generated by the teams in front. Weber-Gale's split (48.33) registered as the 18th fastest of the night; Lezak's was tied for 17th.
Nearly 90 minutes after the race, Weber-Gale stood in front of reporters, shaking the bouquet he had received on the medal stand.
"It's pretty embarrassing for me to go slow like that," Weber-Gale said. "It's very disappointing for me. Such a slow leg, I feel like it's my fault we did poorly. I swam nowhere near my ability."
Australian James Magnussen beat Phelps on the opening leg, 47.49 to 48.08. Three men bested Weber-Gale on the second leg and five topped Lezak on the fourth. Two anchors, France's Fabien Gilot and Italy's Filippo Magnini, beat Adrian's concluding 47.40.