ROME (AP) -- Michael Phelps and the Americans got the best of France again in the relay. And just like Beijing, the world's greatest swimmer owed a big hand to his teammates Sunday.
Phelps led off the 400-meter freestyle relay, his first event of the world swimming championships, but he was only third when he turned it over to Ryan Lochte.
Lochte hung tough against France's hulking Alain Bernard while surprising Russia also surged into contention. Matt Grevers did his part on the third leg, and Nathan Adrian pulled it out for the U.S. with a blistering down and back, overtaking the Russians and holding off the heavily favored French to win in 3 minutes, 9.21 seconds.
Phelps pumped his fists on the pool deck, then leaned over to congratulate Adrian -- whose closing act was reminiscent of Jason Lezak's amazing final leg at the Olympics, when he somehow chased down Bernard to keep Phelps on course to win a record eight golds.
"When we come into a meet we have a goal to win all three relays, and I think this is a perfect way to end day one," Phelps said. "Relays are raced as a team, and I think all four guys swam a great race."
"Coming in to this relay, to be honest, I felt like a child among men," Adrian said. "All of these guys have made a great name for themselves, they've won individual medals at the Olympics, and they threw me on the last leg, so I had a little bit of pressure on myself."
He handled it just fine. Call him Lezak Jr.
This time, France didn't even get the silver. The Russians touched second in 3:09.52, while the French -- who sent out four of the world's fastest sprinters, at least on paper -- were relegated to the bronze at 3:09.89.
None too pleased, they blew off a news conference for the three medal-winning teams.
"The Americans have a real culture of swimming the relay. That makes the difference. They've got the relay in their blood," French men's coach Lionel Horter said. "Even when they have a little problem, like for example, Phelps didn't swim really well tonight, they still swam better than us."
Indeed, Phelps had the slowest split among the Americans, 47.78. Lochte sped through the water in 47.03, Grevers put up a time of 47.61 and Adrian -- who won the 100 free at the U.S. national championships this month -- closed it out with the best time of anyone in the pool, 46.69.
"The best thing about this relay was they carried Michael," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach and also in charge of the U.S. men's team. "That's what we need. We need the other people to step up. It was great."
Amazingly on the warm summer evening at the Foro Italico, the Americans managed to keep their relay title without setting a world record. A half-dozen fell on the first night of swimming -- two of them in semifinal heats, two more in one race, a staggering figure that shows just about every mark is in danger over this eight-day meet.
Looks like those high-tech bodysuits are going to have quite a last hurrah. The sport's governing body banned the attire beginning in 2010, believing they have gone over the line by increasing buoyancy and improving stamina, allowing swimmers to literally glide along the top of the water.
Hard to argue with that perception as one record after another fell.
"Even if it was me breaking a world record, I wouldn't be jumping for joy," said Dara Torres, still competing at 42. "Because you know it's the suit."
Among the records going down: an iconic mark in the men's 400 freestyle held for seven years by Australian great Ian Thorpe. Germany's Paul Biedermann shot down the "Thorpedo" with a time of 3:40.07, breaking his long-standing mark by a hundredth of a second.
"I hope that we don't forget Ian Thorpe now that he's not on the record board," Bowman said. "He was one of the greatest champions and he really revolutionized the sport in the past 10 years. Michael kind of picked up where (Thorpe) started and carried on."
In perhaps the greatest evidence of the suit's impact, Biedermann beat his qualifying time from a month ago by a staggering 61/2 seconds, wearing an Arena X-Glide, one of the polyurethane suits that surpassed Speedo's LZR Racer but will soon be obsolete.
"I expected someone to break the world record. I didn't expect it to be me. Ian Thorpe was really an idol to me and I feel really honored about it," Biedermann said. "This suit makes me really fast. Honestly, I think it (cuts off) 2 seconds in the 400."
An even older world record by Inge de Bruijn, which had stood the test of time since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, also went down. Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom got that one in the semifinals of the 100 butterfly in 56.44, erasing the mark of 56.61.
The Italian fans had plenty to cheer about when Federico Pellegrini became the first woman to break the four-minute barrier in the 400 free. She patted her heart and waved to the near-sellout crowd as she walked off the deck with a time of 3:59.15, breaking her own month-old record.
"I knew I was going to finish first because I didn't see anyone else around me," she said. "But I didn't know about the world record until I stopped and turned around."
Ariana Kukors, who didn't even qualify for the 200 individual medley at the U.S. trials but got in when a teammate scratched, now holds the fastest time ever in that event. She, too, did it in a semifinal race -- wearing another of the new-age suits, the Jaked, when she went 2:07.03 to easily beat Stephanie Rice's record of 2:08.53 that won gold in Beijing.
The record book was so worthless that two marks fell in a single race. Germany's Britta Steffen was credited with a world record of 52.22 in the 100 free for her opening leg of the 400 free relay, but the Netherlands came back to win the race -- with a record-breaking time, of course: 3:31.72.
In fact, runner-up Germany and third-place Australia also broke the previous mark of 3:33.62.
Torres swam the relay for the Americans, but she was already more than two seconds behind by the time she dove in the water on the second leg. The U.S. wound up a distant fourth.
"That hurt," said Torres, who has focused on the 50 free. "I hadn't been training for the 100. My start was not very strong and my turns were not very strong."
By the end of the night, there was a familiar sight: Phelps climbing to the top of the stand, leaning over and having a gold medal draped around his neck.
He's endured quite a journey since his great haul of China -- hosting "Saturday Night Live," appearing on countless television shows, putting out another book, and raising the profile of a sport that had been a once-every-four-year phenomenon.
That was all part of his plan. What he didn't count on was having his picture snapped as he inhaled from a marijuana pipe, and having that photo show up in a British tabloid. He received a three-month suspension from USA Swimming and didn't get back into competition until May.
But he's recaptured the motivation that took him to unprecedented heights, setting another world record at the U.S. nationals this month. And he's off to a winning start at Rome, where he'll be competing in six events.
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