SHANGHAI – Missy Franklin skipped a few steps. A talented 16-year-old with high school swim meets, chemistry classes and proms in her future, Franklin figured to turn some heads at these swimming world championships. Get her name out there. But she hasn’t merely shown she belongs. She’s gone straight from just-happy-to-be-here to burgeoning superstar.
She’s not only been the breakout swimmer for the United States, she’s also been the top U.S. female competitor in the last major tuneup for the 2012 Summer Games in London. Every time she’s hit the water, she’s lived up to the nickname Jack Bauerle, the U.S. women’s team coach, handed her a couple of weeks ago: Missile Franklin.
On Saturday night, she won a pair of gold medals and took part in two American-record performances, raising her week’s tally to three golds, one silver and one bronze medal.
“I said this all along: She’s a stud,” 14-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps said after winning the 100 butterfly final in 50.71 seconds as American Tyler McGill got the bronze in 51.26. “She’s super-good. To be able to watch what she’s doing, it’s incredible. . . . She does it all.”
In the 200 backstroke final, Franklin finished in 2 minutes 5.10 seconds – 0.8 better than her American-record swim Friday, 0.96 faster than silver medal winner Belinda Hocking of Australia and the fifth-fastest time in history.
Shortly after belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the medal ceremony, Franklin anchored the U.S. 4x100 medley relay team that won the gold, went under the American record and came within 0.17 of the world record. Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni, Dana Vollmer and Franklin each outswam the competition to post a time of 3:52.36, allowing the United States to top China by 3.25 seconds and Australia by 4.77. Franklin swam the freestyle leg in 52.79 seconds.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Franklin said. “I knew this was the last session of my first world championships and I will never have that again. I wanted to make sure I came here and left everything in the pool and I did that, and I am so, so happy. . . . I’ve never been so happy in my life.”
All week, Franklin’s teammates have commented on – and occasionally laughed out loud at – her infectious enthusiasm. She has bubbled over with nothing short of pure joy at every opportunity, beginning when she got up during the rookie show that preceded this event and produced a lengthy hip-hop routine that left the entire team in stitches.
“Having someone on the team to come in and be like, ‘Oh yes! It’s prelims!’ ” Vollmer said. “It’s really awesome.”
“She’s really happy and excited to race, more so than any other swimmer on the team,” Coughlin said. “All of us are trying to mimic that as much as possible.”
Most would also be happy to mimic her performances. Kate Ziegler of Great Falls added a bronze medal to the silver she won last week in the 1,500 final, finishing behind world-record holder Rebecca Adlington (8:17.51) and Denmark’s Lotte Friis (8:18.20) in the 800 freestyle with a time of 8:23.36.
“I’m a little disappointed, because I wanted to be faster,” Ziegler said. “This meet has definitely been a steppingstone, my first [major] international competition back since the  Olympics.”
On the opening night of the meet last Sunday, Franklin swam the fastest leg on the silver-medal winning 4x100 relay team, and the second-fastest leg of any competitor from any country. Four days later, she won a bronze medal in the 50 backstroke on the same night she helped the U.S. team to a gold-medal in the 4x200 relay – with a time that would have won her the gold in the individual 200 had she been entered in the race.
Friday, she led all semifinalists in the 200 back, breaking Margaret Hoelzer’s three-year-old American record in the event. Only Soni, who won both individual breaststroke events before joining in Saturday’s gold-medal relay, has a comparable collection of medals on the U.S. women’s side.
“Missy is very, very unique,” Coughlin said. “She’s got the maturity to handle the pressure.”
Phelps, too, won his first world title at age 16, setting a world record while winning the 200 butterfly in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2001.
“I kinda remember myself being like that,” Phelps said. “Full of energy all the time, always happy, never tired, always swimming fast. . . . She’ll remember this for a long time.”
Bauerle sensed Franklin had star potential back in December of 2009, when she joined Phelps and other stars on the senior U.S. team at an international meet in Manchester, England. There, she led off the women’s 4x100 relay – as a 14-year-old.
“She’s unbelievably coordinated in the water,” Bauerle said. “She just has fun with the sport. That’s how you try to teach it, but it seldom works out perfectly.”