SHANGHAI-- Three years ago, in Beijing, the American men won a relay race that still gives you shivers when you watch it. Who can forget Jason Lezak's out-of-body swim that clinched the gold medal? Two years ago, at the world championships in Rome, the American men again willed their way to victory in the 400-meter freestyle relay.
The magic came to a sudden and dramatic stop Saturday night in Shanghai. The Americans didn't win the 400 free relay at the 2011 world championships. The Aussies did. The Americans didn't even come in second. The French did. The Americans came home third, and about the only consolation was that this wasn't the Olympics.
"We just talked about just not liking where we were all standing," Michael Phelps said after the American men had come off the medal stand with their bronze medals.
"Clearly everybody wants to win. And being able to pull out a medal is good. But we -- I think, as Americans want to win everything that we do. We want to be the best. That's all you can really say. We strive to be the best we can be. We all know we can be better than that."
This was a loss for the books. The Americans had won this race in 2005, 2007 and 2009 and of course at the 2008 Games.
This was, moreover, a race that underscored two particular facets of swimming that make it thoroughly compelling.
One relates to the sport as it is now around the world: A whole bunch of countries are really good. That means the U.S. team is clearly going to be challenged heading toward London and the 2012 Games. That challenge may yet prove constructive. Only time will tell.
Two is more particular to U.S. swimming. The culture of American swimming is not only to stress accountability but to accept and acknowledge defeat -- to be stand-up about it. American athletes in any number of other sports could learn a lot from the way U.S. swimmers handle losing.
"I was out too slow," Garrett Weber-Gale, who swam the second leg of Saturday's relay, said, adding a moment later, "Obviously a relay is four men but it's pretty embarrassing for me to go slow like that and I feel like, you know, I don't know the right word, but it's very disappointing for me to have such a slow leg and feel like it was my fault we did poorly.
"... Truly, I feel sick about it. I don't like it. Just have to work harder to be better next time."
Lezak, who swam third, said he didn't swim his best, either: "It takes 100 percent of a team to do their best splits to win nowadays. You can't go in there and have two guys swim great and two guys swim average and expect to win. That's what happened today. Unfortunately, I was one of the average guys out there."
The U.S. men's coach, Eddie Reese, said, "We usually swim our relays as well or better than we look like we should. This wasn't a very good relay for us."
Before the race, the focus had been on the French, Americans and Russians. The Americans had all those recent years of winning history; the Russians, after winning the relay at the 2003 worlds and then all but disappearing, had finished first at last year's European championships; the French, second.
The Australians were nobody's betting favorites. That said, Eamon Sullivan, the Aussies' anchor guy, was hardly a secret. He had gone a then-world record 47.05 in Beijing, at the Games.
The Aussies' lead-off guy Saturday turned out to be one James Magnussen. He is 19.
Magnussen promptly went 47.49 to put Australia in open water. The Aussies never relinquished the lead.
For comparison, in the 2008 Games, Phelps swam his opening leg in 47.51.
Asked late Saturday about swimming here against Phelps, Magnussen said, "No biggie."
Phelps had put the Americans in a solid second place at the end of his split, in 48.08.
They dropped to third in Weber-Gale's leg, fourth with Lezak; Nathan Adrian pulled the Americans back up to third with a 47.40 anchor.
Reese said, "We had splits that were not at all like we thought they would be. Michael's split was really good. He was out there where we thought he should be. Then we just -- our middle, Garrett and Jason -- when you get behind out in the middle of the pool, and you got real big guys making real big waves," meaning big guys from other teams, "it's not a safe place to be.
"It's why we usually we lead off with Michael. 'Cause Michael is super-solid. And he's one of the top two or three out there. I think he had the second-fastest 100 lead-off. We got what we wanted out of that."
The Aussies' winning time: 3:11 flat. The French -- 3:11.14. The U.S. -- 3:11.96.
As Phelps pointed out afterward, the 2011 American relay time was almost two and a half seconds slower than the winning U.S. 2009 relay time, 3:09.21.
There's a whole week of these world championships left -- a lot of racing. Big picture, now there will be a year to think about this loss.
"I mean, it's frustrating," Phelps said.
"... We know what we have to do to get back. We all said that. Standing up on the podium, it's clearly not the spot we want to be in. This is really going to be motivation.
"... It is a good thing it's not the Olympics. We have time to prepare and get ready and change some things. I think that's what we're all going to do. Because I don't think we like the feeling that we have right now."