LONDON – For all the buzz about Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, the U.S. swimmer with the most medals so far at this Olympics is so unknown that even her 200-meter freestyle victory was overshadowed by Missy Franklin’s fourth-place finish in the same event.
Meet Allison Schmitt.
With four medals, the 22-year-old from Canton, Mich., is leading the U.S. women to what could end up being their best Olympic performance since at least the 2000 Games.
The U.S. women have exactly the same amount of medals as the U.S. men – four gold and nine total.
That’s more golds than the U.S. women won at either the 2008 Olympics (two) or in 2004 (three). And three days of swimming remain in London, with races such as reigning world champion Rebecca Soni in Thursday’s 200-meter breaststroke final yet to come.
Soni is so ready she swam Wednesday’s semifinal in a world record two minutes, 20 seconds.
“I felt good (Wednesday), so all I have to do is feel about the same and hopefully I can go a little bit faster,” she said.
In the 4x200-meter freestyle relay Wednesday, Schmitt dove in as the anchor with a half-second deficit to erase. She did that and more, leading the U.S. women to their first Olympic relay victory since 2004.
The team, which also included Franklin, Dana Vollmer and Shannon Vreeland, set an Olympic record by finishing in seven minutes, 42.92. The U.S women beat the second-place Australians by more than a second as Schmitt swam the fastest split of the night (1:54.09).
“Her performance, it’s magnificent,” U.S. women’s head Olympic coach Teri McKeever said. “There’s no one else you’d want on the end of that relay.”
Schmitt, who also has won silver in the 400-meter freestyle and bronze in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, has spent the last year training with the same coach as Phelps, Bob Bowman.
“She’s done a really consistent job in every aspect, which has really paid off,” Bowman said. “And she’s really learned the mental game. That’s what she’s brought here that she didn’t have in Shanghai (at world championships) last summer.”
Schmitt won just one medal at last year’s worlds, gold in the 4x200 relay.
The middle child of five, Schmitt doesn’t seem bothered at all by the lack of attention her breakout Olympics is getting. She’s much more effusive, in fact, in talking about Phelps’ performances than her own.
“He makes me tear up every time I give him a hug. It’s unbelievable to see how well he’s doing,” she said.
All of the U.S. women credit a feel-good team energy – which anyone can get a sense of by watching the team’s YouTube send-up of “Call Me Maybe” -- for how well they are doing in London.
“All of us are smiling. All of us are swimming lights out. And it’s really inspiring to my personal races,” said Jessica Hardy, who will swim in Thursday’s 100-meter freestyle final. “It’s really cool to be a part of that girl power.”
Not since 1996 have the U.S. women’s swimmers outperformed the men. At the Atlanta Olympics, U.S. women won 14 total medals, seven of them gold, while the U.S. men won 12 medals, including six gold.
Recent Olympics, of course, have been dominated on the men’s side by Phelps and his record medal hauls. In the shadow of that, the U.S. women have performed well but not always up to expectation and/or potential.
At this Olympics, they are hitting their marks more than they are missing them.
While Phelps and Lochte have shined, they also have performed with confounding inconsistency. Meanwhile, the U.S. women have set two world records – Dana Vollmer also set one in the 100-meter butterfly – and gotten gold-medal individual performances from Vollmer in the 100 fly, Franklin in the 100-meter backstroke and Schmitt in the 200 free.
“We’ve exceeded all of our own expectations coming here and exceeded our expectations as a team with how close we’ve gotten,” Franklin says. “I think that’s probably the most important part, and that’s such a big factor of how we’re doing here.”
McKeever said the team is “a nice blend” of rookies and veterans. The swimmers credit McKeever, the first woman to serve as an Olympic head coach, with helping them bond.
“She created a space for all of us that we could actually open up to one another and really learn each other’s stories and learn what motivates each other and what makes each other nervous,” Vollmer said. “To be able to be truly honest with all of your teammates is really an awesome feeling.”
And it appears to be producing awesome results.
Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.