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France had the lead in Beijing and its best sprinter, Alain Bernard, going out on the final leg. But Lezak swam the fastest relay leg in history, drafting Bernard along the lane rope and beating him by a scant 0.08 seconds to keep Phelps on track for his record eight gold medals.

That was one of the greatest races in Olympic history.

This one wasn’t too shabby, either.

“I was just really excited and I think I overswam the first 50 and it hurt me for the last 50,” Lochte said. “But we were able to get a medal, so I guess that’s good.”

Lochte’s reaction was much different than the one he had the night before, when he finished more than 3 seconds ahead of the other medalists and more than 4 seconds ahead of Phelps in the 400 IM.

Even though Phelps got a medal this time, he didn’t look much happier. He lingered at the edge of the pool right above Lochte, before going over to congratulate the French.

Phelps put up the fastest time among the American swimmers, covering the second 100 in 47.15 and showing he still intends to be a force at these games after his disappointing start. Nathan Adrian swam the leadoff leg in 47.89, going out faster than Australian star James “The Missile” Magnussen to give the U.S. an early lead. Cullen Jones was solid, too, in the third spot (47.60).

Lochte was handed a lead of more than a half-second, but he couldn’t hold it. Agnel covered the final leg in 46.74, while Lochte labored home in 47.74.

Agnel’s anchor wasn’t quite as spectacular as Lezak’s 46.06 at Beijing, but the French had no complaints.

“It’s magical, simply magical,” Agnel said. “We didn’t have too much pressure. We did what we know how to do. Now, Olympic champions. It’s brilliant.”

They climbed to top step of the podium to receive their medals, looking down at the Americans.

“It’s tough,” Phelps said. “We’d like to be on top, but Yannick has been swimming well all year and those guys put together a great relay. We tried to get ourselves into as much open water as we could. We had four great guys to get up there and swam as fast as we could. We were the ones that the coaches thought were going to have the best shot. We went out there and raced. That’s all you can ask.”

The U.S. coaches will surely come under scrutiny for going with Lochte, who had little experience in the 100 free and had never competed on this relay at the Olympics. But, coming off his dominant showing the first night, it’s hard to argue about going with a swimmer who appeared to have the hottest hand of all.

“The 100 free, I don’t really swim it. I haven’t swum it in a long time,” Lochte said. “You would think doing distance events, I wouldn’t get tired. But sprinting takes a lot out of you.”

In an interesting twist, Bernard will get a gold medal even though he didn’t swim the final. Amaury Leveaux and Fabien Gilot took the first two legs, but Bernard will be rewarded, too, for taking part in the morning prelims. Maybe that will soothe some bitter feelings from four years ago.

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