LONDON – Rebecca Soni pumped her fist and beamed, a rare display of emotion from the breaststroke queen.
Tyler Clary giddily splashed the water, having made up for all the close calls in his career.
Both played leading roles on a golden night at the pool for the United States, showing there’s more to this team than Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Soni set her second world record in two days to defend her Olympic title in the 200-meter breaststroke Thursday, then Clary dealt Lochte a stunning loss in the 200 backstroke for the first gold of his career.
Sure, Phelps-Lochte II dominated much of the attention – Phelps beating his rival in the 200 individual medley, after losing to him in the 400 IM, to claim his 20th career Olympic medal and 16th gold.
But there were two other U.S. triumphs.
“I can’t believe I did it,” Soni said.
Bouncing back from the disappointment of getting silver in the 100 breaststroke, Soni broke the 200 breaststroke world record in the semifinals and set her sights on going even faster in the final.
When Soni touched in 2 minutes, 19.59 seconds, breaking the mark of 2:20.00 set 24 hours earlier, she leaped out of the water with joy, her fist in the air not once, but twice.
“Two fists pumps out of Rebecca Soni is huge,” her coach, Dave Salo, said. “I’m probably more excited about that, just to see her happy. She’s a very serious athlete.”
Soni was so joyful because she fulfilled a lifelong dream.
“It’s been my goal since I was a little kid to go under 2:20,” Soni said. “I’ve been chasing it ever since. I’m just so happy.”
Clary got off to a sluggish start, making the first turn in fourth. But he steadily moved up. Third at the halfway mark. Second as they made the final flip. Then, coming down the stretch, he surged past Lochte, who had led all the way, and touched with an Olympic-record time of 1:53.41.
Japan’s Ryosuke Irie got past Lochte, too, for the silver. The defending world and Olympic champion settled for bronze.
“I can’t think of anything that I could have done any better,” Clary said. “The last couple of races I knew there were a couple things that were a little sloppy and everything just worked out perfectly tonight.”
At the U.S. Olympic trials four years ago, he just missed out on a spot for the team in Beijing, finishing third in the 200 backstroke and fourth in the 400 individual medley.
Then, after winning a silver medal in the 400 IM at last year’s world championships, Clary didn’t even get to swim that event in London. Phelps unexpectedly added the race back to his program this year, and he wound up beating Clary for the second spot on the team at trials, finishing behind Lochte.
Clary was third, but he bounced back to qualify in two other events. Then he caused a stir in a newspaper article that quoted him saying Phelps didn’t really train that hard and basically got by on talent. Clary apologized to Phelps and the entire team for being a distraction.
Then he turned the 200 back into gold.
“It’s complete redemption,” Clary said.
Phelps claimed his first individual victory in London. He set the tone from the start with a dominating butterfly leg to become the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympics, winning in 1:54.27, just off his winning time in Beijing (1:54.23).
When it was done, there wasn’t that water-pounding celebration we’ve seen so many times from Phelps – just a slight smile as he hung on the lane rope, gazing up at the stands and soaking it all in.
“Once it’s all over, it’s going to really hit me emotionally,” Phelps said. “I know for my mom (Debbie) it’s very emotional. I’m the last Phelps to come through. She’s watched my sisters go through the sport and retire.”
Lochte settled for silver in 1:54.90, having split with Phelps in their two head-to-head races in London.
“Ryan and I have had a lot of great races,” Phelps said. “He has brought the best out of me many times.”
Lochte tossed his cap and goggles into the crowd, his work done. His final tally: two golds, two silvers, one bronze and a fourth-place finish.
“I wanted to get all golds in my events, but you know it didn’t happen,” Lochte said. “I’m going to have to live with that and move on and learn from it. Try not to make the same mistakes in the next four years.
“For the most part,” he insisted, “I’m pretty satisfied.”