OMAHA, Neb. - Missy Franklin finished swimming at the CenturyLink Center at 7:07 Saturday night. At 7:37, Katie Ledecky was in the water, taking over for good the pool that had belonged to Franklin four years ago.
In a sport ruled by times, 30 minutes provided a time passage through four years. The half-hour marked a transition from the era when Franklin was the leading figure in U.S. women’s swimming and its pre-Olympic designated star to the one when Ledecky is the leading figure in world women’s swimming and its pre-Olympic designated star.
Ledecky, 19, would cruise to victories in three freestyle races at these U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, adding Saturday night’s win in the 800-meter freestyle to those in the 200 and 400.
Franklin, 21, had won two individual events and qualified for four in 2012. This time, she clawed her way on the team going to Rio by rallying for second-place finishes in the 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle.
She replaced dominance with desire, battling to reclaim part of what had seemed so easy to get the first time.
“I wasn’t trying to be better than I was in 2012,” she said. “I’m trying to be the best of who I am right now. I feel I was able to do that.
“I realized it was going to be different this time around. I’m going to have a different Olympics, a different place on this team.”
In 2012, Franklin won the 100 and 200 backstrokes at both the trials and the Olympics. With three relays, she swam seven events at the London Games, bringing home four gold medals and a bronze.
She will swim just three races in Rio, adding the 4x200 freestyle to her two individual events. But the way she opened these trials, with a seventh in the 100 backstroke, it looked as if she might not make the team at all.
“The week has been a pretty big roller-coaster,” said Franklin, who had failed to make the final of the 100 freestyle between her runner-up finishes in the 200s. “I had to really show some grit.”
Franklin left Cal-Berkeley after her sophomore year to turn pro a year ago. She admitted Saturday night it was hard to keep a balance between being prepared to swim her best and meeting the demands of her sponsors.
She was nervous coming into the meet, worried about letting other people down. She found it reassuring when fans still asked for her autograph after the 100 backstroke.
“She’s such a fighter,” Ledecky said of Franklin. “She might be a little disappointed in her swims this week. She has nothing to be disappointed about.”
Some may have been disappointed that Ledecky, a world-record machine, did not set any this week.
She came closest in her first event, the 400, missing her own mark by just .61 seconds in a race that took her nearly four minutes. She was well ahead of her own world-record pace for the first half of the 800 final before settling for a nearly 10-second win over Leah Smith with a time of 8 minutes, 10.32 seconds.
That was the third-fastest time in history, slightly faster than her time from Friday’s heats, more than nine seconds faster than her trials-winning time in 2012, when Ledecky also won the Olympic title in the 800. She now has the 11 fastest 800 times in history, topped by an 8:06.68 last January.
“I would have liked to be faster, but I could kind of tell during the race I wasn’t going to be much faster than (Friday),” she said. “My legs just weren’t there tonight.”
Ledecky swam here without doing the full training taper she and coach Bruce Gemmell have put off until before Rio. She also had the added physical stress of sprinting three 100-meter freestyle races, finishing seventh in the final, in an attempt to earn at least a spot in the 4x100-meter free. While no more than the top six in the 100 make the Olympic team as relay swimmers, the coaches can use anyone on the team in a relay.
“You take three rounds of the 100 out, and my schedule gets a little easier for Rio, so that’s good,” Ledecky said.
With all the fanfare accompanying Ledecky, it was easy to overlook that a much less heralded Maya DiRado, 23, also won three events, adding the 200 backstroke title to those in both individual medleys. And DiRado, who will retire after making her Olympic debut, realizes she goes to Rio as a medal hopeful rather than a medal favorite.
“Honestly, making the team was the goal coming into this,” DiRado said.
Franklin, who set the world record for the 200 backstroke (2:04:06) in the 2012 Olympics, looks like an even bigger medal long shot than DiRado now. With lowered expectations, meeting them should not cause Franklin to lose sleep, as it did here, when she began by vainly trying to handle the psychological burden by herself.
“I’ve learned it’s OK to ask for help, especially as I get older, too” Franklin said.
"I had my mom come over and sleep with me a couple of nights, and that's OK. (And) It's okay to ask some of my (former) Cal teammates to come over and hang out for a bit and get my mind off of it.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.