Franklin, the Face of Swimming

by Casey Barrett

Missy Franklin – There is no better ambassador…

Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture the perfect avatar of swimming. He or she would be brilliantly talented for one, a gold medal threat in many events. She would be eloquent and real and warm and beloved by her teammates. She would be grounded and self aware. She would be driven not by money, but by what really matters – having fun and embracing the moment.

But most of all, she would be a fearless competitor. All those warm and fuzzies would belie her essential nature. The nature of a cut throat clutch performer.

Open your eyes and see Missy Franklin standing before you. If USA Swimming could assemble their ideal athlete, the one they’d want to hold up to the world and say this is swimming in America, this is who we are, that athlete would look exactly like Missy Franklin. If I could hold up a swimmer for my daughter and say this is what it’s all about, this is a role model for you, that swimmer would also be Franklin. I am positive that I’m not the only parent to feel this way.

Sure, Phelps and Lochte remain the face of the sport for the wider world, and rightly so; Franklin still has a long way to go before she can amass their incredible accomplishments. Yet, this 17-year-old high school senior to be could give both of those guys media training. They might be a decade older, but when Missy speaks, she is far their superior. Good god, how well spoken is this girl?

But back to the water. Yesterday in London, she did something not even Phelps or Lochte have done. Her double – 200 free semifinal and just 15 minutes later the final of the 100 back – must rank among the greatest Olympic swimming achievements ever. As Rowdy Gaines pointed out in the primetime broadcast, if you’re not a swimmer you cannot possibly understand how difficult that was.

The 200 free is a back-breaker of a race. It’s the perfect masochistic mix of sprint and stamina. It leaves you absolutely gutted. That’s why so many consider it the true standard of the sport. The best pure swimmer is the one who wins this race. In her semifinal heat, Franklin somehow stayed contained. She expended just enough energy to secure her place in the final – she grabbed the last spot, in 8th. I’m guessing she was going about 90% for the first three laps. But when she turned for home, she had to notice her spot in the final slipping away. She went to the legs hard that last 50 and did what she needed to do. But she would be needing those legs something fierce fifteen minutes later.

The 100 back is mostly legs, and Franklin had almost no time to recover. She jumped in the diving well and tried to swim it off as Ryan Lochte marched out for the final of the men’s 200 free. Consider that little detail for a moment: One of the most anticipated drama-packed races of the Games was going on about fifty feet away from her, while she was trying to warm down and slow her racing heart. That’s no small distraction.

Then she was back, dry behind the blocks and looking strangely relaxed and recovered. When the swimmers were told to enter the water, Franklin broke into a huge smile. You see smiles of a different sort behind the blocks all the time at the Olympics. They’re forced nerves-cracking pressure-getting-to-me grins. They look painful and they say: Choke Imminent.

This was the exact opposite of that. Like everything else with Franklin, it looked totally genuine. She really is having fun out there.

Now, here’s what would happen to everyone else if you were attempting this double. You would force yourself to get psyched up and over energized, and when the race went off, you would blast into it. You would over swim the first 25 meters; you would be winning, but already fading by the 50; by 75 meters the field would go by you. The announcers would be sympathetic, they’d say you just ran out of steam after that too-tough double. But it wouldn’t really be that. You would fade because you didn’t swim your race.

Somehow, yet again, Franklin swam within herself. She did what every coach on earth tells his swimmers to do: She swam her own race. She surfaced dead last, was still way back at 25 meters, and slowly built momentum into the wall. By 75 meters, instead of fading, Franklin was surging. It was over by then. Franklin finishes her 100 back the way Aaron Peirsol used to. Which is to say, she owns the last 15 meters of the race.

She touched in American record time, a half second drop from her lifetime best. 15 minutes after swimming 1:57.5 in a pressurized 200 free semi.

This is legendary stuff we’re witnessing. A bit like watching Phelps first attempt his grueling eight-gold campaign back in Athens. It’s resetting the standards of what’s possible. Phelps left Athens with six gold and two bronze, setting the table for Beijing perfection four years later. Franklin will probably leave London with four gold (adding the 200 back and the next two relays), a bronze in that first relay, and may reach the podium in the 200 and 100 free too. It will be among the greatest Games ever for any female swimmer.

But of course, this 17-year-old avatar is just getting started.