|A view of the doors to the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb.|
OMAHA, Neb. – For Missy Franklin, the difference in coming back to Omaha for another U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming is highly visible.
“I’m on the doors now, which is a pretty big deal,” she said before the meet began.
There are full-length, larger-than-life photos of her on doors leading into CenturyLink Center. They celebrate the 6-foot, 2-inch Franklin’s stature in the sport, the Olympian heights she reached through the portal of the 2012 trials.
Four years later, after having lost time to back problems yet bearing a bigger load of expectations, Franklin has the same effervescence but is a diminished swimmer. The door to another Olympics could shut in her face.
That was evident in Tuesday’s final of the 100-meter backstroke, an event she had won at both the trials and Olympic Games in 2012. She had set U.S. records in each race. The faster, 58.33 seconds, remains the record.
This time, she was an also-ran, eighth after 50 meters, seventh at the finish in 1 minute, 00.24 seconds. Franklin was more than one second behind winner Olivia Smoliga, nearly a second behind runner-up Kathleen Baker.
“The point of this meet is to pick the best of the best, and the best right now is Olivia Smoliga and Kathleen Baker,” Franklin said.
The implication was as obvious as the result. This young woman who had been the breakout swimming star of the 2012 Olympics, where she won four gold medals and a bronze, is in a far different position, one she accepts with honesty and grace.
Franklin found encouragement in having felt “pretty good” in a 200 freestyle semifinal 25 minutes before Tuesday’s backstroke race, making that Wednesday final with the fourth-fastest time. She can earn a spot on the team headed to Rio as a relay member with a top-four finish in the final. That seems far more likely than her qualifying as an individual in the 200 free, which she did by taking second in 2012.
“Right now, I need to make the team in whatever way,” she said.
Franklin was among many veterans being swept away by a new wave.
*Three-time Olympian and 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, 33, was last in the 100 backstroke final.
*Reigning Olympic men’s 100 backstroke champion Matt Grevers, 31, also the 2012 trials champion, missed the team in his best event by finishing third to Ryan Murphy and David Plummer Monday night.
“I’m a little stunned,” Grevers said. “By the time it sinks in, I’ll be a little more distraught.”
*Ryan Lochte, 31, bothered by a groin injury, eked out a spot on the team as a relay swimmer by getting fourth in the 200 free. This will be a fourth Olympics for Lochte, winner of five gold and 11 total medals.
*Eight of the 10 trials winners in the meet’s opening three days will be first-time Olympians. While the winners and top four in the 100 and 200 freestyles are the only ones with a guaranteed spot in Rio because of limits on total team members, there are 15 first-time Olympians among the group of 21 almost-certain qualifiers so far.
“It’s not out with the old, it’s in with the new,” said Smoliga, 21.
Franklin, after all, is hardly old. But it has been a long and complicated four years for the Coloradan who was the ebullient, fresh face and TV darling of the U.S. team in 2012.
She returned from London to her senior year of high school and the spoils of celebrity: VIP treatment at a Justin Bieber concert, being invited to the Golden Globes, acting as Grand Marshal of the Fiesta Bowl parade, doing the coin toss at a Broncos game, yukking it up with Jay Leno and guest starring on the network teen drama, "Pretty Little Liars." Amidst all that, she remained an unabashedly unjaded teenager, given to thoughts full of awesomes, so cools and unbelievables.
The plan was to do two years of college and then turn pro, which she did after her sophomore year at Cal-Berkeley, signing with IMG. A disappointing 2014 season outside of college eventually led her to return to Colorado and her childhood coach, Todd Schmitz. Franklin’s performances had stagnated: her personal bests in her four best events, the 100 and 200 freestyles and 100 and 200 backstrokes, all are at least three years old.
Publically, she has not shown frustration over such results. Her smiles are as broad and frequent as ever. She is as accommodating to the media as ever. She makes no excuses, saying her back now is fine.
“I always had this idea in my head of the person I wanted to be when I was going through challenges,” she said. “When I was 17, I never had gone through any main challenges. My career had been up and up. I had a wonderful family, a wonderful life.
“So to have this opportunity, have God say, ‘All right, here’s what I’m going to throw at you. You’ve said you’re going to handle it one way. Let’s see if you are really going to handle it that way.’”
The way she has handled it must please her impressive list of sponsors, including Visa, United and Coca-Cola. Yet they undoubtedly would also like to see her have a visible, successful role in Rio, and she knows that.
When the question of bearing up to such new demands arrived after the 100 backstroke, Franklin was characteristically straightforward.
“You definitely have a little more on your shoulders,” she said. “I’m feeling more pressure than I ever have before… and all I can do is the best I can do.”
She has three more chances to make the team, in the 200 free, 100 free and 200 back. The door is still open, even if she has to slip through sidelong, as a relay swimmer. Right now, that looks like a pretty big deal, too.
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.