Freestyle relay medals

Adrian Nathan, Ryan Lochte, Cullen Jones and Michael Phelps pose with the silver medals won in the 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday at the London Olympics. (Jamie Squire, Getty Images / July 29, 2012)

LONDON — In a turnaround that left Michael Phelps and his teammates in stunned silence Sunday night, the 400-meter freestyle relay gold medal that the U.S. had in its grasp slipped away in a late surge by the final French swimmer.

Ryan Lochte, swimming the anchor leg for the U.S., touched .45 of a second later than Yannick Agnel. The Russian team won bronze, ahead of the Australians, heavily favored going into the race with their self-described "weapons of mass destruction team."

It was redemption for Phelps, who had failed to medal in his first race on Saturday but was easily the fastest American in Sunday's relay. It was a reality check for Lochte, who was enjoying his trajectory over the rival who has long overshadowed him. And it was also payback, for the French, who in one of the most thrilling versions of this event, in the 2008 Games, lost their own race in the final strokes to the U.S. team.

"It is very frustrating that we lost but this is going to be something that's going to motivate us and motivate the guys that are going to step over in our shoes the next couple years and hopefully we do get this race back," Phelps said.

It was the first silver medal that Phelps has won in four Olympics and increased his overall medal count to 17, one behind the record held by gymnast Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union. He now has 14 golds, one silver and two bronze. He won't add to the total today because his next individual event, the 200 butterfly, swims preliminaries and semifinals today.

On Sunday, Phelps seemed to look back at the scoreboard several times as if in disbelief at the results — 3:09.93 for the French, 3:10.38 for the U.S.

Although he traditionally leads off, Phelps swam the second leg Sunday. Sprinter Nathan Adrian went first, and handed Phelps a lead. The Baltimore swimmer more than protected it, posting the fast split of the team, 47.15 seconds.

Phelps said he asked to be moved from leading off so he could follow Adrian.

"I'd been practicing going off Nathan's relay exchanges" in training camp, Phelps said. "Coach [Gregg] Troy asked me where I wanted to go, I said, 'Where's Nathan going to go, I want to go behind him.'

"Nathan swam a great opening leg, putting us out into open water. I just tried to give us even more open water," he said.

Phelps handed the lead off to Cullen Jones, a Beijing relay teammate, who left it in the hands of his good friend and Olympic Village roommate, Lochte.

But then, Lochte's path to emerge from Phelps' shadow hit a roadblock. Lochte already had swum the 200-meter freestyle semifinal earlier in the evening, and seemed to run out of steam as Agnel crept closer and closer until he touched the wall first.

"We were all screaming, screaming, 'Touch the wall,' to Lochte, Jones said. He did, but second, and remained in the water, as his teammates clustered around the starting block mostly in silence. Eventually Lochte emerged, and Phelps, who was receiving hugs and handshakes from the French swimmers, embraced him.

Lochte said he thinks he was a little over-excited swimming a non-familiar race — he generally races in the 200-meter category — and didn't pace himself.

"We had our best four guys and we went out there to win it and we came up short," Lochte said. "I'm kind of bummed because when we get on the blocks, we always want to win."

His teammates refused to criticize him. "I already told him," Jones said, "it's OK."

"It's a tough loss," Adrian said, before reversing himself and saying it wasn't necessarily that. "We frame it as we won a silver medal."

The relay capped an action-packed night on this, the second day of the Olympic swimming competition.

Setting an American record, Allison Schmitt of North Baltimore Aquatic Club won a silver medal swimming the 400-meter freestyle in 4:01.77 minutes. She hung tough with the winner, Camille Muffat, from start to finish, with the French swimmer setting an Olympic record with her 4:01.45 finish.