By Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY
LONDON - Swimming is, at the heart of it, an individual sport.
You're alone in the water in a lane of a pool. You're racing the clock. You motivate yourself.
You wouldn't know that if you listened to the U.S. women's swimming team.
Here at these Olympics, so much of the conversation has been about teamwork. Camaraderie. Dancing. Oh yes, the dancing.
Each member of the U.S. women's 4x100-meter medley relay final called the gold medal - won Saturday night in world-record fashion - a perfect and fitting end to these Games.
They made the perfect team, with three women who had already set world records swimming the first three legs. Allison Schmitt, the one who hadn't broken an individual world record, got to touch the wall 14 hundredths of a second ahead of world-record pace in the relay. The four embraced one another moments later.
It was fitting because they had won so much gold already, so it was no surprise that they would win gold in the medley relay for the first time at the Olympics since 2000. Missy Franklin (backstroke), Rebecca Soni (breaststroke), Dana Vollmer (butterfly) and Schmitt (freestyle) combined for a time of 3:52.05. Australia won silver, and Japan earned bronze.
All week the American women have been talking about how much fun they've been having and how close they've become as teammates. In an individual sport like swimming, that's fairly uncommon.
They give a lot of credit to U.S. women's coach Teri McKeever, who has also coached at Cal for the past 20 years.
"More than the medals, it was the team that has completely impressed me this trip," said Vollmer, who also competed in Athens in 2004. "I'll never forget being a part of this group. Teri has always told me I'm not going to remember the times or how many medals I got, it's going to be the relationships that I've made.
"This meet has just been full of them. This relay in particular, being in the ready room and just laughing and smiling and being in the warm-up pool, dancing with Missy. That's what it's been about."
At their news conference after winning gold, the four relay swimmers sat side-by-side. Schmitt and Franklin, the two youngest, were giggling and joking with each other. Vollmer and Soni, roommates here who each broke two world records at these Games, played the roles of the serious veterans.
The young, dancing, enthusiastic crowd injected some new life into the group, and the older, experienced swimmers kept the youngsters focused. It took both groups to win 14 medals in London.
After the medley, after weeks of training camp and winning medals, an emotional McKeever talked about how important relationships between teammates can be, particularly for women. Relationships with coaches matter, too, and Vollmer said it helped greatly to have McKeever.
"It just kind of hit me that it's been this good," said McKeever, her eyes watering. "I'm proud of my role. I think it made a difference, and I'm proud of that."
Soni said McKeever helped the women who competed against each other for Olympic roster spots a month ago at U.S. trials become a team.
"It's not like you can just say, 'Hey, go be friends,'" Soni said. "What we did was relied on each other, trusted each other. What we did sometimes was separate the rookies from the veterans to talk about things, and then brought them back.
"It's more fun to talk to each other than be talked at."
And sometimes, words aren't necessary. Franklin, Schmitt and Elizabeth Beisel regaled the news media all week with stories of dancing in the ready room, their key to relaxing before races.
Even the men noticed, and the chemistry was contagious. Freestyler Nathan Adrian, who won three gold and one silver medal at these Games, said the girls made him smile and lighten up before his races.
"It's a really good time right know," McKeever said. "Things kind of go cyclical. I think the women have been a bit overshadowed by Michael (Phelps) and Ryan (Lochte)."
They may still be, at least for a night. When the greatest swimmer in history says he's retiring, that happens.
But in upcoming weeks and years, particularly as Franklin's popularity grows, it could be time for the American women to steal back the spotlight - together.