BARCELONA, Spain — Ryan Lochte feels like himself again. Looks more like himself, too, with that gold medal around his neck.
Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky have felt this way all along. They’re piling up so much gold they might need bigger suitcases to get home.
Lochte bounced back from a disappointing start to the world swimming championships, showing he still knows how to touch the wall first with his victory in the 200-meter individual medley Thursday night.
“The first two days I wasn’t myself,” Lochte said. “I was too worried about the outcome of each race, about finishing first, about my times, and that’s not me. I am a swimmer who is really relaxed and goes out there to have fun.”
No one is having more fun than a pair of American teenagers.
Franklin, the 18-year-old who recently graduated from high school, is 4-for-4 at the championships after anchoring the U.S. to victory in the 4×200 freestyle relay, matching her gold-medal haul at the London Olympics.
Ledecky, only 16 and getting ready for her junior year of high school, is 3-for-3 after swimming the leadoff leg of the relay. It was her first chance to be part of a U.S. relay team at a major international meet.
“Being part of a team is the most important part about swimming for me,” Franklin said. “You want to go out there and race harder than you’ve ever raced before.”
Chances are, there will be more trips to the podium for the stalwarts of the American team.
Lochte has four events remaining and Franklin three. Ledecky will be a big favorite in the 800 free, the event that produced her breakout gold medal at the London Olympics last summer.
“I am not going to think about the outcomes or about winning,” said Lochte, who got through a demanding double by posting the second-fastest time in the semifinals of the 200 backstroke behind another American, Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary. “I just need to have fun.”
The U.S. settled for silver and bronze in the men’s 100 free — swimming’s glamour event. Australia’s James Magnussen rallied on the return lap to edge Jimmy Feigen and reigning Olympic champion Nathan Adrian.
Lochte barely celebrated after his race, letting out a deep breath as he squinted to see his winning time — 1 minute, 54.98 seconds. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino claimed the silver, more than a second behind, and Brazil’s Thiago Pereira took bronze.
Lochte, who took a long break after London and cut back his training to work on a reality TV show, hardly looked in peak form while swimming the second leg on the 4×100 free relay team that finished second behind France. That was followed by an even bigger disappointment — fourth place in the 200 freestyle.
Thursday, Lochte trailed Pereira at the midway point, but he turned it on during the breaststroke leg and pulled away on the freestyle finish, gliding across the water to win by about a body length, 1.31 ahead of Hagino.
It was the 13th world championship gold of Lochte’s career, his 21st medal overall, and his third straight title in the 200 IM — a race he lost to Michael Phelps at the last Olympics.
In the relay, Ledecky put the Americans ahead at the start, and Franklin zipped away with a dominant anchor leg to win in 7:45.14.
“Katie led it off like a champ,” said Shannon Vreeland, the second of the U.S. swimmers. “With Missy as an anchor, you just have a lot of confidence in the rest of the relay.”
The U.S. was slightly behind Australia when Karlee Bispo passed off to Franklin. No problem. She zipped by Alicia Coutts on the final 200 with a leg that was a staggering 1.75 faster than any of the other 31 swimmers in the race.
Australia settled for silver in 7:47.08, while France took the bronze in 7:48.43.
“I don’t even care about my split,” Franklin said. “I knew I had to bring it home with everything I had, and I was just thinking about these girls the whole time.”
When Magnussen saw his name first on the scoreboard, the swimmer known at “The Missile” hopped on the lane rope, flexing his muscles for the crowd while the fans from Down Under shouted “Oi! Oi! Oi!”
He was viewed as a bit of a flop despite a silver medal at the London Games, where he went in as the overwhelming favorite but finished a hundredth of a second behind Adrian.
“It was really emotional,” Magnussen said. “That last sort of 15 meters I really used the last 12 months of experiences that I’ve gone through, and I was really aggressive toward the wall at the end. I’m just stoked that I got there.”
Magnussen was nearly a second behind at the turn, but he powered through the water on the return lap to win in 47.71. Feigen also relied on a strong finish to get the silver in 47.82, leaving Adrian to settle for the bronze at 47.84.
Still, the Americans were happy with their showing, especially Feigen. While Magnussen celebrated, a smiling Adrian put his arm around his teammate, who took the bulk of the blame for that U.S. loss in the 4×100 relay. Despite a lack of international experience, Feigen was put on the anchor leg — and couldn’t hold off the French.
Feigen was second again, but this time it felt more like a win.
“I started off a little shaky this whole worlds thing,” he said. “I think it’s coming together in the end.”
In perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, Denmark’s Rikke Pedersen set a world record in the semifinals of the women’s 200 breaststroke. She touched in 2:19.11, breaking the mark of 2:19.59 set by American Rebecca Soni at the London Games.
Soni is taking the year off but traveled to Barcelona for the championships.
China added to its medal haul with a pair of golds and a silver. Liu Zige won the women’s 200 butterfly, edging the crowd favorite, Spain’s Mireia Belmonte. Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu took the bronze. Cammile Adams of the U.S. was seventh.
The Chinese went 1-2 in the 50 back, an event dropped by Franklin so she could focus on her other events. Zhao Jing won gold, with teammate Fu Yuanhui claiming the silver. The bronze went to Japan’s Aya Terakawa. American Rachel Bootsma finished seventh.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963