AP National Writer
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- With Michael Phelps cheering from the stands and a big assist from a teammate, Missy Franklin got off to a thrilling start in her own quest to win eight gold medals at the world championships.
Too bad the U.S. men didn't have Phelps for their relay.
Megan Romano turned in a brilliant anchor leg to ensure Franklin of a gold in the women's 400-meter freestyle relay Sunday evening, chasing down the Australians in the last, furious strokes.
Coming off a starring role at the London Olympics, Franklin is now one-for-one in Barcelona.
Seven more to go.
"Oh, my gosh, it was amazing!" said Franklin, who clutched hands with teammate Natalie Coughlin at the edge of the pool as they cheered on Romano. "We knew Megan could do it."
Overall, it was good start for the American team on the first night of pool swimming at the arena atop Montjuic. Katie Ledecky, still only 16 and preparing to start her junior year of high school, nearly broke the world record while winning the women's 400 free. Connor Jaeger pulled out a bronze in the men's 400 free, which was won in dominating fashion by China's Sun Yang.
It looked as though the final race of the night would produce another red, white and blue celebration.
Turns out it did -- but it was Le Tricolore that waved throughout the Palau Sant Jordi when the French rallied to snatch the gold away from the Americans in the men's 400 free relay.
In a repeat of their stirring comeback at last summer's Olympics, Jeremy Stravius chased down Jimmy Feigen to set off a wild celebration among the huge French contingent in the stands.
"I actually didn't even see them until the last five meters," Feigen said. "Maybe I should have paid more attention to them."
Maybe the result would have been different if Phelps had not retired after London. He is in Barcelona to make some promotional appearances and attend the evening finals, but only as a fan. The swimming world is abuzz with speculation that he's planning a comeback, but not yet.
"He was texting me," said Bob Bowman, coach of the U.S. men's team and Phelps' longtime mentor. "He was disappointed we got beat. He was just giving me his critique. It was right on."
Of course, Phelps was on the relay team that lost in London. He helped give the Americans what looked to be a commanding lead, but Ryan Lochte couldn't hold off Yannick Agnel's furious charge for gold on the anchor leg.
This time, Agnel went out first for the French, and he was next-to-last when he handed off to Florent Manaudou. France was still only fourth after a blistering 100 by Fabien Gilot (the fastest of the night, 46.90). The U.S. was slightly ahead of the Australians when Anthony Ervin passed it off to Feigen.
He couldn't hold off Stravius, who touched the wall in 3 minutes, 11.18 seconds. The Americans took silver in 3:11.42, while Russia claimed the bronze in 3:11.44. The Aussies faded to fourth.
Phelps was in no shape to swim, even if he wanted to. He arrived at the arena wearing a boot cast on his right foot, having sustained some sort of minor stress fracture that apparently worsened from playing golf.
"I tried to get him on the relay but he didn't want to do it," U.S. assistant coach Mike Bottom said jokingly. "Bob actually was giving him a tough time. He was like, 'Hey, you ready to go? Let's go.' But he was limping around."
Even so, Agnel was asked whether he was glad to see Phelps in the stands rather than in the pool.
"I don't understand the question," the Frenchman quipped.
No swimmer has ever won eight golds at the world championships. Phelps came oh-so-close in 2007 when he won his first seven events but never got a chance in the eighth. The Americans were disqualified in the preliminaries of the 400 medley relay while Phelps was resting up to swim in the final.
The following year, of course, he won a record eight golds on a much bigger stage, the Beijing Olympics.
Franklin, now 18 and getting ready to go off to college at Cal-Berkeley, won four golds and a bronze in London. She just missed out on medals in the 100 and 200 free -- events she will again swim at the worlds along the 50 back, a non-Olympic event.