LONDON - Over the first five days of the Olympics, the U.S. swimmers have piled up 18 medals, including eight golds. Wednesday night, Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin -- who have won six of those medals -- predicted they could finish the meet even more impressively than they began it.
Phelps, Franklin and U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte return to the Aquatics Centre pool Thursday with more metal on their minds. Phelps and Lochte will dive into their second and final head-to-head matchup in the 200-meter individual medley. Lochte also will swim the 200 backstroke, and Franklin will compete in the 100 freestyle on a day that will showcase both fresh and familiar American stars.
The United States has topped the Olympic swimming medal table in each of the past five Summer Games. With three days remaining, this one is heading toward the same result. Wednesday night, Allison Schmitt fired off a phenomenal anchor leg to pull the U.S. from second place into a gold medal and Olympic record in the women's 4x200 freestyle relay, and Nathan Adrian pulled an upset to win the men's 100 free.
Before the team arrived in London, its coaches did not want to predict how many medals it might win. With 12 events remaining, the United States could top its best-ever haul of 33 medals from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The swimmers plan to keep chasing that Thursday, with medals in four events up for grabs.
"Everyone who is part of this team is so proud of what we've been able to accomplish," said Franklin, 17, who won her second gold medal Wednesday in the relay. "I think we've exceeded all our own expectations coming here, and we've exceeded all our expectations as a team with how close we've gotten.
"That's such a big factor in how well we've been able to do. We love each other, and we have so much support for each other. I know we can bring it home strong."
Lochte has the toughest task. He will attempt to defend his Olympic title in the 200 back, then face Phelps 31 minutes later in the 200 IM. Wednesday, he qualified with the fastest time in the 200 IM (1 minute, 56.13 seconds), with Phelps the third-swiftest behind Hungary's Laszlo Cseh.
Leading up to the Olympics, Lochte famously -- and repeatedly -- declared that the London Games would be his time. After winning the 400 IM on the opening night, he has faltered in two events and shined in another. He could not hold a lead on the anchor leg of the 4x100 free relay, and he finished fourth in the 200 freestyle -- a race he won at last year's world championships.
Lochte rallied in the 4x200 free relay, helping to secure the gold medal that made Phelps the most decorated Olympian of all time. Their showdown in the 200 IM will be one of the most anticipated races at these Olympics.
Phelps is the defending Olympic champ in the 200 IM, but Lochte beat him at the 2011 world championships. At the Olympic trials in June, Phelps regained the upper hand, eking out a victory in a stirring race.
"I know he has a tough turnaround, a tough double," Phelps said of Lochte's schedule Thursday night. "I hope we can go out there and put on a good race and show the world. We love racing each other. Neither one of us likes to lose, and we bring the best out of each other."
Men's coach Gregg Troy warned at the end of the Olympic trials that the Americans could not assume they would leave the rest of the world in their wake. He also noted their intensely competitive nature. The trials sharpened that edge to a very fine point, and two camps designed to create strong team bonds have added another element for success.
Lochte finished second to teammate Tyler Clary in qualifying in Wednesday's semifinals of the 200 back. The defending world and Olympic champion, he is favored to repeat, and it would be considered a major disappointment if he did not. Franklin was the third-fastest qualifier in the semis of the 100 freestyle, and Rebecca Soni, Olympic gold medalist in the 200 breaststroke in 2008, set a world record of 2:20.00 to lead the semifinals in that event.
That set the stage for what could be a big night for the U.S., which has come to seem like business as usual.
"We've had a great meet so far," Phelps said. "As we said in a team meeting [Tuesday], we're only halfway done. We're just starting to pick up more and more steam."