RIO DE JANEIRO — Australia turned to the best sister act in swimming to hold off an American team anchored by Katie Ledecky.
Give the gold to Cate and Bronte Campbell.
And a world record, too.
The Campbells carried their squad to victory in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay Saturday night at the Rio Olympics, with little sister Bronte snatching the lead from Dana Vollmer on the third leg and big sister Cate pulling away from Ledecky on the final down-and-back for a time of 3 minutes, 30.65 seconds.
The Aussies broke their own mark of 3:30.98 set two years ago.
That wasn’t the only world record to fall on a late night of swimming to kick off the games. Shaking off repeated frustration on the sport’s biggest stage, Katinka Hosszu of Hungary crushed the world record in the women’s 400 individual medley to make the first Olympic medal of her career gold.
Also, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino ended American dominance in the men’s 400-meter individual medley, while Australia’s Mack Horton took down Sun Yang of China without giving his bitter rival so much as a passing glance.
The victories by Horton and the women’s relay team capped an impressive first night for an Australian team that captured only one swimming gold medal in London four years ago.
They’ve already eclipsed that total, with seven more nights to go.
Meanwhile, the powerful American managed three silvers but couldn’t reach the top step on the podium.
Simone Manuel and Abbey Weitzeil did their best in the relay, giving the U.S. a lead at the midway point. But Bronte Campbell was more than a second faster than Vollmer, who had competed about an hour earlier in the semifinals of the 100 butterfly, and Ledecky was no match for Cate Campbell, the world-record holder in the 100 free.
The U.S. had to settle for silver in an American-record time of 3:31.89, extending a gold medal drought in the event that goes back to the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Still, it gives Ledecky a strong shot at capturing five medals in Rio. She’s favored in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle events, and could take another gold in the 4×200 free relay.
“It made it so much more fun to have a relay as the first event,” Ledecky said. “We couldn’t be happier with our silver medal and American record.”
Canada claimed the bronze.
Hosszu, known as the “Iron Lady” for her grueling schedule, had an especially sweet triumph. She had captured nine medals — including five golds — at the world championships but never won an Olympic medal. She defiantly pumped her chest before breaking into a huge smile.
“I’ve been chasing that world record for quite some time. It’s been over seven years I’ve been thinking about it,” she said. “I knew I could go faster, but I didn’t think I can go this much faster.”
She had led all the way and touched in 4:26.36, easily eclipsing the record of 4:28.43 held by China’s Ye Shiwen. Hosszu even had time to turn toward the scoreboard and watch Maya DiRado of the United States touch nearly 5 seconds later, taking silver ahead of Spain’s Mireia Belmonte Garcia.
“I honestly didn’t even see her, she was so far ahead,” DiRado said of Hosszu.
Hagino took gold for Japan by holding off Chase Kalisz, becoming the first non-American to win the grueling event since 1992.
Hagino and Japanese teammate Daiya Seto raced away from the field on the butterfly and backstroke legs before Kalisz began to close the gap. The American surged past Seto on the breaststroke and set his sights on Hagino.
But the Japanese swimmer, who settled for bronze in this event at the 2012 London Games, held on to win in 4:06.05. Kalisz settled for the silver in 4:06.75, while Seto finished much farther back to get bronze.
“I thought about a lot of stuff this afternoon but decided to just stop over-thinking and go for it,” Hagino said. “I knew Daiya and Chase would come for me but I just had to leave it all out there, which is what I did.”
Ryan Lochte was the defending Olympic champion, but he finished third at the U.S. trials and didn’t even qualify. Michael Phelps was the champion in 2004 and 2008, but he’s dropped the 400 IM from his program. Tom Dolan was a back-to-back champion in 1996 and 2000.
Horton’s victory came at the expense of Sun, the defending Olympic champion. The Aussie grabbed the lead for good on the next-to-last lap and held off the hard-charging Chinese star, who won both the 400 and 1,500 free at the 2012 London Games.
What happened after the race was even more dramatic.
The bad blood between the two was on display for all to see as Horton celebrated without even acknowledging the runner-up. Sun made a move as though he wanted to congratulate Horton, but the winner looked the other way. They got out of the pool together but acted as if the other didn’t exist.
After the morning prelims, Horton described Sun as “a drug cheat” when discussing an incident between the two in the practice pool. The Aussie didn’t back down with a gold around his neck, referring to a three-month suspension that Sun served in 2014 for using a banned stimulant.
“I used the words drug cheat because he tested positive,” Horton said. “I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive and are still competing.”
Horton’s winning time was 3:41.55, just 13-hundredths of a second ahead of Sun. Italy’s Gabriele Detti rallied past American Conor Dwyer, the top qualifier in the prelims, for the bronze.
“I am clean,” Sun insisted. “I’ve done whatever it takes to prove I’m a clean athlete.”
Horton and Sun finally gave each other a begrudging handshake on the medal stand, but that was about it.