BARCELONA, Spain — With Michael Phelps cheering from the stands and a big assist from a teammate, Missy Franklin got off to a thrilling start in her own quest to win eight gold medals at the world championships.
Too bad the U.S. men didn't have Phelps for their relay.
Megan Romano turned in a brilliant anchor leg to ensure Franklin of a gold in the women's 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday evening, chasing down the Australians in the last, furious strokes.
Coming off a starring role at the London Olympics, Franklin is now one-for-one in Barcelona.
Seven more to go.
"Oh, my gosh, it was amazing!" said Franklin, who clutched hands with teammate Natalie Coughlin at the edge of the pool as they cheered on Romano. "We knew Megan could do it."
Overall, it was good start for the American team on the first night of pool swimming at the arena atop Montjuic. Katie Ledecky, still only 16 and preparing to start her junior year of high school, nearly broke the world record while winning the women's 400 free. Connor Jaeger pulled out a bronze in the men's 400 free, which was won in dominating fashion by China's Sun Yang.
It looked as though the final race of the night would produce another red, white and blue celebration.
Turns out it did — but it was Le Tricolore that waved throughout the Palau Sant Jordi when the French rallied to snatch the gold away from the Americans in the men's 400 free relay.
In a repeat of their stirring comeback at last summer's Olympics, Jeremy Stravius chased down Jimmy Feigen to set off a wild celebration among the huge French contingent in the stands.
"I actually didn't even see them until the last five meters," Feigen said. "Maybe I should have paid more attention to them."
Maybe the result would have been different if Phelps had not retired after London. He is in Barcelona to make some promotional appearances and attend the evening finals, but only as a fan. The swimming world is abuzz with speculation that he's planning a comeback, but not yet.
"He was texting me," said Bob Bowman, coach of the U.S. men's team and Phelps' longtime mentor. "He was disappointed we got beat. He was just giving me his critique. It was right on."
Of course, Phelps was on the relay team that lost in London. He helped give the Americans what looked to be a commanding lead, but Ryan Lochte couldn't hold off Yannick Agnel's furious charge for gold on the anchor leg.
This time, Agnel went out first for the French, and he was next-to-last when he handed off to Florent Manaudou. France was still only fourth after a blistering 100 by Fabien Gilot (the fastest of the night, 46.90). The U.S. was slightly ahead of the Australians when Anthony Ervin passed it off to Feigen.
He couldn't hold off Stravius, who touched the wall in 3 minutes, 11.18 seconds. The Americans took silver in 3:11.42, while Russia claimed the bronze in 3:11.44. The Aussies faded to fourth.
Phelps was in no shape to swim, even if he wanted to. He arrived at the arena wearing a boot cast on his right foot, having sustained some sort of minor stress fracture that apparently worsened from playing golf.
"I tried to get him on the relay but he didn't want to do it," U.S. assistant coach Mike Bottom said jokingly. "Bob actually was giving him a tough time. He was like, 'Hey, you ready to go? Let's go.' But he was limping around."
Even so, Agnel was asked whether he was glad to see Phelps in the stands rather than in the pool.
"I don't understand the question," the Frenchman quipped.
No swimmer has ever won eight golds at the world championships. Phelps came oh-so-close in 2007 when he won his first seven events but never got a chance in the eighth. The Americans were disqualified in the preliminaries of the 400 medley relay while Phelps was resting up to swim in the final.
The following year, of course, he won a record eight golds on a much bigger stage, the Beijing Olympics.
Franklin, now 18 and getting ready to go off to college at Cal-Berkeley, won four golds and a bronze in London. She just missed out on medals in the 100 and 200 free — events she will again swim at the worlds along the 50 back, a non-Olympic event.
"I'm right where I was last summer, which gives me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the meet," Franklin said. "I think I am a little stronger in my backstrokes than my freestyles, but I've done a lot of work on my freestyle the past year so I really hope that it's going to be up there."
She was far behind on the opening leg after a blistering start by Australia's Cate Campbell. Coughlin and Shannon Vreeland chipped away at the Aussie lead before Romano finished the job. She edged Coutts by 0.12 seconds with a winning time of 3:32.43. The Netherlands finished another 3 seconds behind for the bronze.
"I just love to race. And relays are awesome," Romano said. "It's great competing for these girls next to me. I was doing it for them. It's fun and I love it. I can't not go fast."
Ditto for Ledecky, who's also planning a grueling program at these worlds that includes the 800 and 1,500 free. It looks likes she can handle the load, her star still on the rise after a stunning gold medal in the 800 at the London Olympics when she was a complete unknown internationally.
"It is easier," she said. "I am a lot more relaxed on the international stage after having the Olympics as a first international competition. It's just great to get back to a top international competition and to do well."
The only drama in her race was whether the world record would fall. She was on pace much of the race before winning with a time of 3:59.82 — a mere 0.67 seconds off the mark set by Italy's Federica Pelligrini back in 2009 in one of those rubberized suits that are no longer allowed.
Melanie Costa of Spain took silver in 4:02.47, while the bronze went to New Zealand's Lauren Boyle in 4:03.89.
"I'm still in shock over the time," Ledecky said. "The U.S. has such a great tradition of distance swimmers, so I'm just trying to do my best to live up to that."
Sun looked as though he barely exerted himself winning the first final of the night.
The towering swimmer hopped out of the pool and flexed his fists for the crowd after winning the men's 400 free in 3:41.59, far ahead of silver medalist Kosuke Hagino of Japan (3:44.82). Jaeger was next in 3:44.85.
"I had a pretty good time for me because I don't have a major challenger here," said Sun, who won two golds, a silver and a bronze at the London Games. "If I had had one, I would have gone a lot faster."
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