Team USA coach at fault in relay flub

BY foxsports • July 29, 2012

When you swim three races in a day, you get tired.

When you get tired, you swim 100 meters of freestyle slower than usual.

And when you swim 100 meters of freestyle slower than usual, you lose to the French.

Don’t lose to the French, which may make for a hilarious DirecTV commercial someday, yet is useless advice at this moment for USA swimming.

Losing to the French already happened.

Sunday in a painful case of reverse déjà vu from 2008, the French anchor of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay chased down American phenom Ryan Lochte and beat him to the wall, relegating Team USA to silver in a race they looked to have won.

Blaming Lochte is the cheap and somewhat valid, I guess, second guess. Less than 24 hours before, when Lochte beat Michael Phelps in the 400IM, we crowned him the best swimmer in the world, the heir apparent to Michael Phelps. If you beat the man, you have to be the man, and the man does not get caught from behind. Neither does Phelps of four years ago, for that matter. All of this is true.

This is equally true: Lochte should never have been put in that position.

What we learned Sunday at the pool is that this is not Beijing, and USA coach Gregg Troy is no Bob Bowman.

This might be a cheap second guess, too. Maybe, the French still beat the Americans because the 46.74-second leg thrown down by France’s Yannick Agnel is crazy fast. But maybe having a guy who swims relays, for whom that 100 meters is among his most important of these games, was an idea worth considering for Troy.

The US men and coach Bowman had Phelps four years ago, the greatest swimmer who ever lived and whom Bowman happened to be the personal coach of, and still went with Jason Lezak for the anchor leg. Lezak was not the biggest star, not swimming a crazy big program, not in line to win eight gold medals. He was just the guy who started out a body-and-a-half-length behind the French swimmer and tracked him down and won himself and Team USA and Phelps a gold in the single best sporting moment I have seen in person.

Lezak was holding nothing back for the 100 fly the next day, or anything else. He was swimming his lower guts off because that medal meant something to him.

In his advanced swimming age, 36, Lezak had become and is a relay man. And swim teams need relay men — just like basketball teams need rebounders and baseball teams need utility infielders and football teams need guys to cover kicks.

“When I qualified for the relay, everybody knew this was going to be a tough decision,” Lezak told late Sunday via email. “The coaches had a tough decision to make with so many talented 100 freestylers and then the 2 best all around swimmers in the world. Of course, I would have liked to be a part of the final. If you asked any of us who swam prelims they would have answered it the same.”

It is the American arrogance — our love of stars and lack of appreciation for guys like Lezak, who swam in Sunday morning’s qualifying heat with what amounts to the B-team relay that included Jimmy Feigen, Matt Grevers and Ricky Berens.

I am not saying Troy should have gone with Lezak. My inclination is Grevers, and he has a backstroke prelim Sunday evening. What I am talking about is the art of putting together a team.

After his morning swim, Lezak showed again why he’s a consummate pro by deflecting every question about Phelps’ possible inclusion instead of, say, him.

“I don’t think that should be a question,” he said. “The 400 IM and the 100 free have nothing in common. If I’m the coach, Michael is on the relay — 100 percent.”

It has to seem slightly ironic now, how almost every pre-race question was directed at Phelps’ inclusion after his lackluster start to these games. There was this indignation, how dare he be included, and he swam what was definitively the best leg of the race.

His 47.15 was the fastest of the Americans and second-fastest overall. He looked to be swimming angry, and that is a dangerous Phelps to deal with. 400 IM always has been his beast.

But I'm more convinced than ever after watching his 100 leg Sunday that he is far from done in this Olympics.

“I felt a lot better today than I did yesterday,” Phelps said. “I was happy I was able to put yesterday behind me and kind of move on to today, and hopefully we can just move forward from here."

If anything, watching Lochte be reeled in by Agnel proved exactly how hard what Phelps did four years ago.

“The 100 free, I don’t really swim it,” Lochte said when asked about coughing up the lead. “I haven’t swam it in a long time, so I think I was just really excited and think I overswam the first 50, which hurt me for the last 50. You would think doing distance events I wouldn’t get tired, but sprinting definitely takes a lot out of you. I made that mistake, but we were able to get a medal.”

The Australians would love to be disappointed in a silver. They wittily nicknamed their relay team the “weapons of mass destruction,” which proved to be prescient because they were nowhere to be found in medals. They finished fourth.

Don’t finish fourth.

And don’t lose to the French.

If anybody deserves to get dropped in the grease for this, it is Troy, because he confused the best swimmer in the world with the best swimmer to anchor his relay.

He went with Lochte. He needed a Lezak.

share story