BARCELONA, Spain – Missy Franklin got the Americans rolling. Then Katie Ledecky really fired ‘em up.
By the end of the night, the U.S. team was awash in medals at the world swimming championships.
Franklin and Ledecky each won their second gold medal of the meet, Matt Grevers led a 1-2 American finish in the backstroke, and there was plenty of reason to celebrate for the red, white and blue Tuesday.
“We’ve had an absolutely incredible evening,” Franklin said. “I’m so proud of all my teammates.”
In all, the Americans claimed three golds, two silvers and a bronze – a strong meet for most nations, certainly quite a haul in a mere two hours.
“A big night for us,” said Bob Bowman, head coach of the U.S. men’s team.
Everyone was raving about Ledecky, only 16 but already well on her way to becoming one of the country’s great distance swimmers. She obliterated the world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle, which may be a non-Olympic event for the women but did nothing to diminish the magnitude of her accomplishment.
After going stroke for stroke with Denmark’s Lotte Friis most of the race, with both well under world-record pace, Ledecky really turned it on over the final 200 and beat the mark by more than 6 seconds. Friis also went under the old record, and all it got her was silver.
“It was motivating watching Katie destroy the world record from the ready room,” Grevers said. “That really got us psyched.”
Franklin cruised through a demanding double, easily winning the 100 backstroke before returning about an hour later to post the second-fastest time in the semifinals of the 200 free.
“It’s tough, but it’s fun,” the 18-year-old said. “I’m super happy with my 100 back. It really got me pumped up for the 200 free.”
Grevers touched ahead of teammate David Plummer in the 100 backstroke, and there were Americans on the podium in all five finals. Conor Dwyer picked up a silver behind France’s Yannick Agnel in the 200 free, and Jessica Hardy chipped in with a bronze in the 100 breaststroke won by Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte.
The only disappointment for the U.S. was Ryan Lochte, who labored to a fourth-place finish in the 200 free.
“It wasn’t my night,” the three-time Olympian said. “But I have to put it behind me because I still have many races to swim.”
He hopes to compete in seven events in Barcelona, despite not being able to train as much as usual this year while taking part in his reality television show, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?”
“It was kind of a tough swim for him,” Bowman said. “He has obviously not had a season with his characteristic preparation. But he’s racing tough. He’ll be back tomorrow. He’ll be fine.”
Ledecky is clearly in top form. She nearly broke the world record in winning the 400 free before leaving no doubt about the 1,500, touching in a time 15 minutes, 36.53 seconds – nearly a half-lap ahead of the line superimposed on the video screen marking the pace of Kate Ziegler’s mark from six years ago, 15:42.54.
“She’s probably made in the same factory as Michael Phelps,” marveled Mereia Belmonte of Spain, who finished far back in fourth.
Friis took silver in 15:38.88, with New Zealand’s Lauren Boyle grabbing the bronze.
“I knew that world record was going down tonight, but 6 seconds!” Franklin said. “All of us were totally in awe.”
Ledecky looks even stronger than she did last year while winning Olympic gold in the 800 free, a stunning breakthrough for someone barely known on the international stage.
Naturally, after that performance, she arrived in Barcelona dealing with the weight of hefty expectations. Plus, she decided to take on an exhausting program that also includes the 800 free.
“I knew we were going pretty fast, and I figured that whoever was going to come out on top was probably going to get the world record,” said Ledecky, who’s going into her junior year of high school. “So I just had to be careful not to push it too early or push it too late and just touch the wall first.”
Franklin breezed to victory in the 100 back in 58.42 seconds. After capturing four golds and a bronze at the London Olympics, the recent high school graduate is trying to join Phelps as the only swimmers to win eight events at a major championship. She is now 2 for 2 at the Palau Sant Jordi, adding to her gold in the 4x100 free relay.
Australia’s Emily Seebohm won silver and Japan’s Aya Terakawa bronze.
After the medal ceremony, Franklin hustled off to get ready for the 200 free semifinals. She barely qualified for the final of that event in London and was edged out for a bronze medal by one-hundredth of a second.
Franklin has spent much of the past year working to improve her freestyle, and the results showed. Franklin easily qualified for the final in 1:56.05, trailing only world-record holder Federica Pellegrini of Italy.
“Hopefully, I will keep the momentum going,” Franklin said. “Hopefully, Team USA will, too.”
Agnel pushed the pace right from the start and never let up. He touched in 1:44.20, a full body length ahead of the field, setting off another wild celebration from the large French contingent in the crowd.
Instead of Lochte, the American winning a medal was Dwyer, a friend and former training partner of Phelps. Danila Izotov of Russia took bronze. Lochte missed a spot on the podium by 0.05.
Agnel is now a training partner of Dwyer’s, having moved recently to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club to work with Bowman, who was Phelps’ longtime coach.
“I am so surprised,” said Agnel, the reigning Olympic champion. “I did not expect such a result.”
Grevers showed he’s still the man to beat in the 100 back after winning gold at London. The American was second at the turn but overtook France’s Jeremy Stravius to win in 52.93. Plummer also got past Stravius for the silver, while the Frenchman settled for bronze.
Meilutyte just missed the world record she set the previous night in the semifinals of the 100 breast, winning in 1:04.42. Russia’s Yuliya Efimova was next, while Hardy – the former world-record holder – pulled out a bronze.
“Maybe the excitement and wanting to win altered my stroke,” Meilutyte said. “I was dying toward the end of it. There’s still things to improve, which is great.”
It certainly would’ve been hard for the American team to improve on this night.