RIO DE JANEIRO — On the day before these Olympics even began, U.S. swimming assistant coach Greg Meehan gathered the 22 women on his team on a patch of grass outside the American building in the Olympic village. He handed out a bunch of small American flags. He gave a brief history lesson about the Homestead Act of 1862 and how anyone could claim a particular patch of land. Then he instructed the two women who had qualified for each event to take turns sticking their flags into the Brazilian ground, claiming that event for the United States.
“The idea being it would be their property if they claimed it first,” said Dave Marsh, the U.S. women’s head coach.
Around the same time, Michael Phelps, Anthony Ervin and Nathan Adrian stood in front of the 22 other members of the U.S. men’s team and delivered an emotional yet stern plea. After a disappointing team performance at the world championships in Russia a year earlier, the three veterans spoke of the importance of getting off to a good start in Rio. Once the American medal haul began, they said, it couldn’t be stopped.
Now, through five days of the Rio swimming competition, it appears the Olympic veterans were right. And the Americans are claiming land everywhere you turn. Wednesday night was just another example, with the Americans adding three more medals to their tally of 18, including Josh Prenot’s silver in the 200 breaststroke, Adrian’s bronze in the 100 freestyle and, for the finale, gold in the women’s 4×200 freestyle relay.
Tack it on to the success from the first four nights of competition, and it’s a historic pace. Consider: U.S. swimmers have medaled in 18 of the 20 events held so far, and they finished fourth in the two events in which they didn’t medal — including the women’s 200 butterfly Wednesday night.
The Americans are on pace to win the most medals in a single Olympics since 1972, when they won 43. And that was a year when countries were allowed to enter three swimmers per event. Now the limit is two.
The party began the first night of competition, when Chase Kalisz blasted his personal best in the 400 IM by more than two seconds to take silver, and then the women’s 400 freestyle relay capped the night with gold. The Americans haven’t stopped since.
“It’s just gotten bigger and bigger as the ball has been rolling downhill,” said Jacob Pebley, who finished third in the semifinal heat of the 200 backstroke and will go for his own medal Thursday night. “And it’s kind of hard not to follow all that momentum and jump on.”
The coaches and athletes alike will tell you it’s more than just talent. They insist this team has a chemistry and bond that has proven critical to their success. It was forged in the two training camps that preceded the trip to Rio, one in San Antonio and one in Atlanta. There were late-night card games. Rookie skits. Inside jokes. The carpool karaoke music video. Cody Miller dressing up like a lobster. And the women playing a game where Marsh would hold a sheet between two swimmers, and when he dropped it they would have to say which event the other was competing in as quickly as possible.
“Coming together as a team — it helps you swim fast,” said Simone Manuel, the top seed in Thursday night’s finals of the women’s 100 freestyle. “It’s that X factor that we are a family, not just a team.”
Added Marsh: “We have all kinds of personalities, but also people who are easily adaptable to a team setting within their own personal preparation.”
And they feed off one another. In the American area in the warm-up pool hangs four floor-to-ceiling banners signed by family, friends and complete strangers wishing the team good luck. When each swimmer leaves the warm-up area and heads to the pool to race, he or she is sent off with a cowbell, cheers and chants of “USA, USA, USA.”
“The cowbell, it’s been working pretty good at this meet,” Prenot said. “I’m not sure if the other countries like it.”
Probably not. USA Swimming, after all, is the equivalent of the New York Yankees. Their 520 medals before competition began in Rio is almost three times as many as have been won by the second-most decorated team, Australia.
The 2016 U.S. roster includes not only Phelps, but Katie Ledecky setting world records of her own. Ryan Lochte is the second-most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time behind Phelps, his longtime rival and friend.
The American swimmers’ 21-medal haul so far exceeds the next two teams — Australia (7) and Japan (5) — combined. There have been big-name stars in Phelps and Ledecky and newcomers such as Ryan Murphy and Lilly King. And there has been gold in all four relays with only the men’s and women’s medley relays still to come.
“It’s really good,” men’s coach Bob Bowman said. “It’s not just the medals. we are swimming well, a lot better than trials. And that means our plan worked.”
The Americans have their trials later than any other country in the world. Their performance at the Games shows they have perfected their tapers, knowing the exact pattern to rest their swimmers so they can make the team at trials but then get their bodies back up to compete for medals five weeks later at the Olympics.
These Games also brought a unique concern — finals starting each night at 10 p.m. Rio time, jolting the swimmers’ circadian rhythms. It’s why the team held practices during both training camps at 11 p.m.
“The coaches did a great job there,” Prenot said. “I was a little concerned about that coming in, but everyone has done well. I haven’t heard one person complain about it or anything.”
Instead, the only ones complaining are the other countries — about all that red, white and blue dominance.