LONDON — For a nice kid, Missy Franklin will knife you in the pool. She comes on all bubbles and dimples, all Rapunzel ropes of hair, and Justin Bieber worshipping. Then she gets in an Olympic swimming race, and all of a sudden, everybody is floating around with lifeless eyes.
Take Emily Seebohm of Australia. She entered the water at London’s Aquatic Center the clear favorite in the women’s 100-meter backstroke, a veteran in her second Olympics who had posted the fastest time in qualifying. But when she hauled herself out less than a minute later, she was broken and sobbing, saying, “I couldn’t hold on to it.” Meantime, young Missy stared moony-eyed at the big board that told her she was an Olympic gold medalist and decided that reality beat her teenage fantasies by “a hundred million times more than what I ever thought it could be like.”
For a lap and a half, you wondered if Franklin might prove just a little too tender to handle all the expectations. She’s not only 17, she’s a particularly young-seeming version of it, palpably naive and open-faced. This was her first Olympic gold medal attempt in a grueling program of seven planned events — and on top of that, she had had to swim a semifinal heat in the 200 freestyle less than 15 minutes earlier. But with about 25 meters to go in the backstroke, a mean girl took possession of her.
Her arms flicking through the water, Franklin drew alongside Seebohm, and then showed an edge with 10 meters to go. She drove even harder, and arched toward the finish. “Brought it home and just tried to get my hand on the wall,” Franklin said.
When she looked up, she saw her name atop the board, with a time of 58.33 seconds to Seebohm’s 58.68, and a giant video screen flashing a shot of her parents celebrating. All at once, the nice kid took over again.
“I saw that number one,” she gushed. “You dream of it so often that you still feel like you’re dreaming.”
The rest of the field in London now knows that Franklin is not here to play, or just get her feet wet, or have “an Olympic experience.” She’s here to win everything in sight. She may have translucent Teen Vogue skin and a spasmodic giggle, but she is big, tough athlete whose will matches her imposing 6-foot-1 shape.
Among those convinced is Michael Phelps, who had been a little skeptical of Franklin’s let’s-go-to-the-malt-shop manner, which can seem overly bright. Phelps was with Franklin at a media day recently and noticed how habitually amped she was, “just bouncing off the walls,” he said. “I don’t understand how these girls have so much energy. It is nonstop.” Phelps suspected Franklin had no idea how the Olympic meet can drain a swimmer, and was in for an awakening. “This is going to be a completely different experience for her,” he predicted. Her challenge, he suggested, would be learning how to not to spend herself frivolously and conserve herself for the pool.
“If Missy can control her emotional energy, she’ll be fine,” he said, “but that is going to be the hard part of it. It hits you hard. It does add up. I noticed in ’08 I got super tired and super run down.”
Phelps offered to tutor Franklin in swimming so many events, given his own successful grab for eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Games. But he never heard from her. Turned out she doesn’t think she needs the help. And maybe she doesn’t. For one thing, Franklin did something Monday night that not even Phelps has ever tried to do in the Olympics: She swam a pair of races in oh, a little more than 13 minutes. At his absolute peak Phelps has never gone without at least a 30-minute rest and recovery period between races.
Instead of treating it as a grim task, Franklin approached it like it was the prom, in keeping with a personality that seems to view everything as the bestest ever, Pollyanna wonderful. But it’s for real. There was no mistaking the genuineness in her voice when she described the excitement of that quick turnaround. She paced herself in the freestyle with a time 1 minute 57.57 seconds, a full second slower than her best time this year. She was mainly trying “to stay off my legs in that 200, and make it as much of a warmup swim as I could,” yet still make the final. As soon as she finished, she plunged herself into the diving pool to keep herself loose. And almost before she caught her breath, it was time to take the starting block for the backstroke.
“I ran right into the ready room,” she said, “and it was fun!”
Phelps was so impressed by Franklin’s feat that when he saw she had won the backstroke gold, he went out to the pool deck to look for her. He found her warming down, and gave her a huge high-five. “I can’t believe you just did that,” he said.
Phelps was convinced — and so was the rest of the world.
“Missy showed a lot tonight,” he said with obvious respect. “She’s tough. She’s obviously a force to be reckoned with.”
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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