By early Monday morning it was hard to know which was the more indelible image for the US on a Sunday that had brought so much disappointment in its first 23 hours.
Was it Michael Phelps on the medal platform with his 19th career gold draped around his neck, holding the head of a weeping teammate Ryan Held? Or could it have been Katie Ledecky, pushing off the final turn in the 400m, shimmying past her opponents coming the other way as she thrashed her way to a world record?
After a day in which the Williams sisters lost in tennis doubles, the men’s volleyball team were defeated by Canada and cyclist Mara Abbott was chased down in the final yards of the road race, America’s televisions blinked off to the sight of tears streaming down Held’s face as he stared at the American flag. In the rush of US Olympic swimming memories over the last few decades that final hour on Sunday will be one of the best.
“We have a lot of momentum now!” Phelps shouted in a corridor beneath the Olympic Aquatics Stadium following his tremendous second leg in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay that helped the US hold off France and Australia.
He was talking about himself and the men’s swim team in particular but he might as well have referenced the entire US delegation. The swim team’s two wins and five total medals on Sunday were a huge boost on a gloomy day. Going into the night swimming program the US had just seven medals for the Olympics, only one of them a gold.
That changed on Friday. First came Ledecky, who treated the 400m like she was swimming against a group of kids at the community pool. She burst off the starting block with the intent of destroying her best time in the event and then got stronger and stronger until the last lap had become a race against the clock on the giant scoreboard hanging above the pool. And when she finally stopped and gazed up at the numbers she saw that she had not only obliterated the previous world record of 3:58.37 set in 2014, not by tenths of seconds, but almost two entire seconds, down to 3:56.46. To which she said in her typical understated way, “Oh awesome!”
As Ladecky thrashed her way to history, her teammate Leah Smith – the bronze medalist – almost gasped in the water. “Part of you is in awe and part of you is trying to catch up to her,” Smith would later say.
No one was catching Katie Ledecky on Sunday. She was too far ahead. So complete was her victory it’s almost impossible to imagine that she is just 19, in her second Olympics with only three gold medals. It’s a figure that will soon climb. It doesn’t even feel like she is racing against other swimmers right now, it’s more like she is swimming against herself.
As she clutched her gold in a hallway under the arena, the men’s 4x100 team was stepping onto the pool deck. Phelps had already proven to the team in practices and trials that he deserved a slot in this race despite being 31 years old and entering his fourth Olympics. Held wasn’t told he would be in the third spot ahead of Nathan Adrian until early in the afternoon. “OK it’s go time,” Adrian said to himself after getting the news. Half an hour later he was crying on the phone to his mother, overcome by the emotion of such an honor.
Later that night he watched Phelps glide toward him after a remarkable second leg, extended the American lead, and then saw Adrian protect the gold. Just before they stepped ono the podium Phelps told him: “It’s OK to sing (the national anthem) and its OK to cry.” As the song played, Held cried. “I’ve heard the national anthem 1,000 times before but there was something about this one that manifested the tears,” he said.
When the anthem was over, Phelps looked at Held standing next to him, smiled and wrapped a giant hand around his teammate’s head. “It’s good to see some emotion out of these young guys,” Phelps said later. “It showed they care.”
Sunday had been a thrilling day for Phelps. He seems happier and content at these Olympics, a vast change from the more sullen star of previous Games. All afternoon his heart felt like it was going to leap from his chest. He was that anxious and excited. “I wanted to go out on the open water and I wanted to hammer it,” he said.
Hammer he did. And by the end, by the time midnight came and Phelps and his 4x100 teammates had left the pool with their medals, they knew they had been a part of an extraordinary day in American swimming: the night Ledecky swam away from everyone and the 19th gold for a swimmer who has more than any other American athlete. Suddenly everything felt right again for America’s Olympians.
This article was written by Les Carpenter in Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th August 2016 04.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010