Jed Jacobsohn for The New York Times
Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, left, after losing to the French in the men’s 400-meter relay.
Ryan Lochte was too fast for Michael Phelps on Saturday night. A day later, he was not fast enough.
Lochte was stunningly caught in the anchor leg of the Olympic 400-meter freestyle relay on Sunday night, turning a chance to win another gold for himself and Michael Phelps into a pair of silvers.
The Frenchman Yannick Agnel was the pursuer, reeling in Lochte – who was swimming his third race of the day – to give France a relay gold it so coveted four years ago in Beijing, when a similar anchor leg by Jason Lezak had stolen the prize.
Controversially added to the United States team for the final, Phelps swam a strong second leg to preserve the Americans’ slim lead. He inherited a fingertip lead from Nathan Adrian and handed Cullen Jones a full body length.
Lochte dove in for the anchor leg with that same advantage, and held it for his trip up the pool. But Agnel charged after the turn and sped past a fading Lochte in the final 25 meters. France’s team of Amaury Leveaux, Fabien Gilot, Clement Lefert and Agnel won in 3:09.93. The Americans were second in 3:10.38 and Russia (3:11.41) took the bronze.
Phelps is trying to become the most decorated Olympian in history at these Games, and every swim helps in that quest. Sunday’s medal was his 17th over all, putting him only one behind the record held by the Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina.
He was part of a wholesale change to the American lineup from the morning semifinals, when Jimmy Feigen, Matt Grevers, Ricky Berens and Jason Lezak turned in the second-fastest qualifying time.
Phelps’s credentials speak for themselves: 14 of his 17 Olympic medals are gold, and he set an American record when he swam the leadoff leg in the Americans’ relay victory in Beijing. But his inclusion on Sunday night was still a surprise. Phelps did not swim the 100 at the United States Olympic Trials, and he was outgunned over the distance in a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday night.