LONDON – This is no country for old men. Or women.
More precisely, this is no pool for old men. Or women.
Through three head-spinning, status-quo-shaking days at the Aquatics Centre, a pattern has been established: The youth movement is on. The top step of the medal podium has belonged to the baby faces, the teens in tears, the kids who would need fake IDs to buy beer in America.
Swimming has progressively become older, as the biggest stars found they could make a living from the sport from prize money and endorsements. But these Olympics may be the signal that you can't hang around forever before someone swims past you and steals the spotlight. At the very least, this is no country for complacency.
On the women's side, three of the five individual gold medals have gone to a 15-year-old (Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte), a 16-year-old (China's Ye Shewin) and a 17-year-old (America's Missy Franklin). And you can expect more from Ye (the top finals qualifier in the 200 individual medley) and Franklin (swimming a women's record of seven events). They will win gold again at these Games.
[ Related: Franklin can rise to the "female Phelps" label ]
On the men's side, the stars of the show has been a strapping pair of 20-year-olds: 6-foot-7 Yannick Agnel of France, who has won gold on successive nights; and 6-6 Sun Yang of China, who set a world record in the 400 freestyle on Saturday night and then won silver Monday in the 200 free. There should be more individual and relay medals for both young men as well: Yang is the world-record holder and heavy favorite in the 1,500 free, while Agnel will be a load in the 100 free.
There have been other young guns on the podium, too: 17-year-old Kosuke Hagino won bronze in the men's 400 IM, and the entire medal stand for the women's 400 IM was comprised of teenagers – Ye, followed by 19-year-old American Elizabeth Beisel, followed by 18-year-old Xuanxu Li of China.
But it's not just the age of the winners. It's the age and stature of the competitors they're taking down.
Agnel single-handedly stopped the Ryan Lochte locomotive in its tracks, coming from behind to beat the 27-year-old American star in the 4x100 freestyle relay on Sunday night and then dominating him in the 200 free on Monday, as Lochte faded to fourth. Just when America was working up a serious case of Lochtemania, after he won the 400 IM on Saturday to start the meet, Agnel changed the narrative.
When Hagino has grandkids, he'll tell them about who he out-touched for the bronze medal in the 400 IM: none other than Michael Phelps, 10 years and 16 Olympic medals his senior. But while Japan celebrated Hagino's bronze, it later mourned the toppling of breaststroke king Kosuke Kitajima – the 29-year-old finished a weak fifth in the 100 breaststroke on Sunday.
[ Related: Two diving wins end U.S. medal drought ]
Both Phelps and Kitajima were bidding for the first-ever individual Olympic swimming three-peats. Stunningly but tellingly, neither hit the podium in their first tries. (Phelps still can do it in the 200 fly on Tuesday and 100 fly on Friday, while Kitajima has a shot in the 200 breast on Wednesday.)
On the women's side, Meilutyte won the 100 breaststroke by holding off 25-year-old Rebecca Soni, a 2008 gold medalist. Meilutyte broke into tears after swimming a sizzling preliminary heat Sunday, then cried some more when they put the gold medal around her neck the next night.
"At the moment I can't speak too much," she said after the race. "But it means a lot to me and I'm so proud."
Meilutyte then skipped the winner's press conference, which was set for 10:30 p.m. on Monday night London time. Must have been past her bedtime.
U.S. assistant coach Bob Bowman has a vested interest in seeing at least one graybeard keep the kids at bay for the next week – he's Michael Phelps' personal coach. But he thinks the youth movement is a positive sign.
"I think it's about time," he said. "The older guys have stayed around so long, I think it's actually good to see some young people up and coming. I think for too long the younger swimmers have thought they couldn't beat the older ones. Now they see they can, and it should be good for the next generation."
[ Related: American men go 1-2 in 100 backstroke ]
Of course, every trend comes with prominent exceptions. American Matt Grevers looks better than ever at age 28, winning the 100 backstroke in an Olympic-record time Monday night and saying he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. Runner-up to Grevers was American teammate Nick Thoman, age 26.
And no American woman has been more electric so far that Dana Vollmer. At age 24 and having competed in her first Olympics eight years ago, Vollmer showed no signs of aging in blasting to a world record and gold medal in the 100 butterfly on Sunday.
But in general, these are shifting times at the swimming venue. The old guard, which was testing the long-established limits of longevity by trying to win medals across three Olympics from 2004-12, is under siege. We came here talking about Phelps and Lochte and other veterans, but the kids are coming for their medals.
And they're smiling and gushing like Missy Franklin did Monday night.
She repeatedly paid the proper respect to her elders on the American team – like her former Denver buddy Tim Tebow, she has a remarkable ability to always say the gracious thing at a young age. But the best part of her press conference was when a reporter asked her where her medal was.
"Right here in my pocket," she said, pulling it out and holding it up. "Isn't it pretty?"
"So you finally got one," the reporter responded.
"I finally did," she said, then smiled at the silliness of the comment. "After 17 years."
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