Changing of guard
LONDON — Missy Franklin was 5 years old, splashing around with her kiddie team when Michael Phelps made his first trip to Olympus. Four years ago she was a gangly, goggle-eyed 13-year-old, delighted just to be in the backwash of Dara Torres and Katie Hoff at the trials.
This time Franklin is being hailed as the Phemale Phelps. She’s swimming seven events at the London Games with an excellent chance to medal in five of them, which would be one shy of the US women’s record set by Natalie Coughlin in 2008. “It seems unreal but I’ve dreamed about it for so long,” the 17-year-old from Centennial, Colo., said after she’d made the US squad. “And the fact that I’m here and it’s happening right now, it feels like a dream.”
Franklin is making her five-ringed debut just as the 27-year-old Phelps is making his departure, all but certain to shatter the record for most Olympic medals (18) set by Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina between 1956 and 1964. “I have no doubt about it,” declared Latynina, who gave Phelps a keepsake medal when they met for the first time in New York earlier this year.
While Phelps, who has 14 golds and two bronzes, won’t say that’s his goal, it’s clearly a major reason why he decided to continue on to a fourth Games after achieving gilded perfection in Beijing. “I’m not going to say anything,” he said, “but I have always wanted to be the first person to do something.”
Nobody ever had won eight gold medals until Phelps did it in eight races, winning both butterfly events, both individual medleys, the 200-meter freestyle, and contributing a leg on all three victorious US relays. Phelps realistically couldn’t top or even match that this time and never said he wanted to. “It wasn’t going to be eight,” said his longtime coach Bob Bowman. “He’s said that for the last four years.”
Eight wasn’t his stated goal in Beijing, even though his quest was The Story of those Games, a prime-time suspense series. “I think you guys thought I was chasing Mark Spitz,” Phelps mused this spring. “I thought I was trying to do my own thing in 2008, so I’m doing the same thing now.”
Phelps probably could have competed in nine events this summer if he hadn’t scratched from the 200 free and if he’d swum the 100 free at trials, where he had the second-fastest seed time. “His versatility is amazing,” said Gregg Troy, head coach of the US men’s team. “If the program were different he would probably go three or four different ways in events he swims.”
Except for the 200 free, which Phelps dropped because the prelims and semis come on the same day as the 4 x 100 freestyle relay final, he has the same menu this time and it figures to produce as many as five gold medals. He’ll be favored in both the 100 and 200 fly, both of which Phelps has won at the last two Games. He’ll have the edge in the 200 IM on world champ Ryan Lochte, whom he beat at the trials, and he’ll be on the 4 x 200 freestyle and 4 x 100 medley relays that the Americans figure to win. Toss in a silver behind Lochte in the 400 IM and a bronze in the sprint relay and that’s 7 for 7.
That would give Phelps, who won six golds and two bronzes in 2004, a career total of 23 medals, which might appear to be an unbreakable mark. Yet if she cares to stay in the sport until she’s 29, as Coughlin has, Franklin could win two dozen of her own. Phelps’s first Games appearance at 15 in Sydney was a cameo — he finished fifth in the 200 fly, his only event. “I was just kind of thrown into the show and I didn’t know what I was doing, really,” he said, recalling that he forgot to tie his suit strings when he first went on deck.
But Franklin, two years older than Phelps was as a rookie, is decidedly more accomplished, with five world long-course medals already on her résumé. She’s the global champion in the 200-meter backstroke and has the year’s best time in the 100 back. She’ll swim those events plus the 100 and 200 free (where she’s not a medal contender) and all three relays, where her teammates figure to win a couple of golds and a silver.
That would be an extraordinary leap for a girl who finished 37th, 39th, and 41st at the 2008 trials but Missy The Missile’s trajectory has been steep ever since she was making national cuts at 12. “When I first met her she was freshly 15,” recalled Coughlin. “It was at the Charlotte Grand Prix and she was so precocious, saying ‘What’s up, girlfriend?’ I thought, who is this girl? Isn’t she supposed to be afraid of me?”
Franklin, whose parents are Canadian, has dual citizenship and could have competed for Team Maple Leaf, which her mother suggested might be an easier road to the Games. But Franklin, who was born in Pasadena and whose swimming background always had been star-spangled, wanted Uncle Sam’s squad.
She made an immediate splash in her opening race at last month’s trials, setting an American record in the 100 back and making the team as Coughlin, who’d held the domestic mark and had won the event in Athens and Beijing, missed out. “It’s time for Missy,” conceded Coughlin, who’ll be a relay swimmer in London.
One quadrennium has made a massive difference for Franklin, whose 6-foot-plus stature, 76-inch wingspan, broad shoulders, and flipper-sized (13) feet produce an imposing presence. But her knack for putting one race behind her as she prepares for the next is exceptional. “It’s Missy’s uncanny ability to flip the switch,” says her coach Todd Schmitz. “A lot of athletes out there, it’s paralysis by analysis. They think too much.”
At last autumn’s World Cup in Berlin, Schmitz was worried that Franklin had emptied her gas tank by setting a personal best in the 200 free and that she wouldn’t have enough left for the 200 back that came 20 minutes later. Franklin ended up setting a short-course world record. “That was one of my big ah-ha moments,” she says.
Franklin had felt that she was out of shape and had told Schmitz before the trip that she was nervous about performing poorly. “Swimming is what you do,” said a football player who was working out near her at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic. “You’re not going to forget how you do it. Just go out there and do it.”
That was her approach at the trials, where Franklin knew that everybody expected her to roll a seven. Her coach had talked about the scene in “Hoosiers,” where Gene Hackman has a player measure the hoop before the state championship game to show his teammates that the game is the same regardless of the venue. “There are probably a few more people in the stands and a few more lights on you but at the end of the day it’s a pool like we train in every day,” said Schmitz. “That’s the confidence that you have to go in with and you can see that with Missy. You’ve got to have fun.”
Phelps, who was in the same place in 2004 that Franklin is now, has volunteered to give her a few pointers about dealing with the big squeeze. “I told her if she needs anything, come on, ask me for whatever she needs,” he said. “I’ve said throughout the year call me, text me, ask me. She hasn’t. I offered.”
Franklin has gotten all the advice she needs from the veterans on the women’s side, who’ve been impressed with how much pleasure she takes from the sport. “Missy really enjoys the whole thing,” says Coughlin. “She just truly loves racing.”
Now that she’s at Olympus — especially now that she’s at Olympus — Franklin wants to make sure that she doesn’t forget how all this started. “Every time I swim I make sure I’m remembering that 5-year-old on her summer club swim team that loved going out there and being with her friends and playing cards in the tent before we swam,” she said. “I’m swimming for that girl, the one who just loves swimming with her whole heart.”
That was the challenge for Phelps after Beijing. He knew that he’d be continuing on to London but he barely could drag himself to the pool. “I just didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I just didn’t want to put in the work. There were times when I just wouldn’t come to practice. It didn’t excite me. I wasn’t interested. I was just going through the motions. It really was all about me being able to find the passion again.”
Losing to Lochte, whom he’d always beaten in big meets, helped restoke the fire. “He was kind of rolling over me,” acknowledged Phelps, who came in second to his archrival in both the 200 free and 200 IM at last year’s world meet in Shanghai. “It wasn’t fun to be on that end. It was something that was very motivating to me.”
When Lochte declared “It’s my time” this year, Phelps didn’t fire back. “I’ve always been a person to let my swimming do the talking,” he said, and went on to beat Lochte in two of their three head-to-head meetings at the trials. And when Tyler Clary this month questioned his work ethic, Phelps refused to engage. He’d beaten Clary, an Olympic rookie, in the 200 fly at the trials and kept him off the team in the 400 IM, where Clary is the world silver medalist. “Michael’s main competition is himself,” Bowman says.
And London is where Phelps will put the finishing touches on his legacy and wave farewell. “This is just your time to see what kind of finish you want to put on top of your chocolate sundae,” Erik Vendt, his former Olympic teammate and fellow medalist, told him. “How big do you want your sundae to be? How much chocolate do you want to add?”
Franklin is making her first trip to the Olympic soda fountain and the array of offerings have her wide-eyed. “The first day when they gave us all the stuff I was literally going off the wall,” she confessed. “I was running around giving everyone hugs.”
She still has a year to go at Regis Jesuit High School and has to decide where she’ll swim in college, where she’ll still only be a junior when the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro come around. Phelps, who has been swimming for three years longer than Franklin has been alive, can’t wait to touch the wall for the final time. “My mom said on ‘60 Minutes’, he’s going to Rio,” he said. “I said, yeah, we’ll go and watch.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.