LONDON — Before coming to her first Olympic Games, Missy Franklin was often compared to Michael Phelps, especially after she qualified to swim seven races here.
But other swimmers have faced the same comparison, then crumpled under the pressure and expectations.
Thirteen minutes after she qualified for the 200m freestyle final, the big swimmer with the big smile jumped back into the pool, curled herself up to the wall for the start, and swam her best backstroke ever, claiming her first gold medal in her first individual Olympic final.
“I saw the board and saw that number one and after thinking about it and imagining it happening for so long, it doesn’t seem real,” she said. “I’ve dreamed about it so often that I still feel like I’m dreaming. I still feel like someone needs to pinch me.”
Even if someone did pinch her, she would probably just laugh. Though Missy is all business in the pool, out of the water, she is a 17-year-old high school senior from Colorado who takes AP classes, just got her driver’s license a year ago, and her braces taken off a few months ago. Her big smile now radiates her enthusiasm more than ever.
Her older teammates have said that she is a joy to have around because she is easily thrilled by what has long since become the drudgery of training for them.
“As soon as she walks out of the pool, she’ll remind you that she’s 17,” said her coach Todd Schmitz. “But that’s the best part about it. She doesn’t get too serious. That’s one of her special skills.”
Missy is also remarkably well grounded for someone who won a world championship title at age 16. She does not read any of the articles written about her or watch herself on TV, and she has a remarkable ability to focus clearly — “Your race, your lane,” she often tells herself over and over.
She has an “uncanny ability to flip the switch on right before the race starts and flip it off when the race finishes,” Schmitz explained.
Coming to London, some of her older, more experienced teammates, like Phelps, knew it was crucial for Missy to maintain control of this switch — to squelch her enthusiasm to save energy, especially on days when she has to swim doubles. Like the 200 freestyle semifinal and 100 backstroke final today.
Missy knew this would be perhaps the toughest part of the Olympics. Staying calm.
“The day we first got here and had all our uniforming, I was literally going off the walls,” she said before the Games started. “I was running around giving everyone hugs.”
She confessed that it would be hard to control her energy. But Schmitz knew she could do it. Over the past year, coach and swimmer have talked about it over and over, and at Trials, he saw a new calmer Missy — at least at the pool.
“That really speaks to her maturity in the last year,” he said. “She hasn’t always been able to do that. She goes full throttle, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when you get to this level, we have to swim three smart races (heats, semifinals, and finals).”
As the evening of the 100 backstroke final started, it looked like Missy hadn’t conserved enough energy to make it into the finals of the 200 free and win an Olympic medal. In the second heat of the 200 free, she squeaked into the final with the eighth fastest time. No one knew Schmitz had told her to lay off her legs, to save them for the 100 back. She just looked slower than her usual missile-like self.
She quickly jumped out of the competition pool, and while the 17,000-or-so fans in the stands were focused on the next races, Missy quietly slipped into the adjacent diving pool and warmed down. FINA had granted her access to the pool because of the tight turn-around time between her races.
Thirteen minutes later, she was back in the competition pool. It was a schedule that had other swimmers, like Phelps, concerned. But not Missy.
“I love getting out there and swimming the first race and getting nerves out and coming back and swimming again,” she said, almost bouncing in her seat. “It’s so exciting for me. I have so much fun with it.”
But from the start of the 100 back, it didn’t look good. Missy was in sixth halfway into the first lap. Phelps was worried. But not Schmitz.
“She’s never going to win a start,” Schmitz said. “She’s 6-1.”
At the 50, Missy was tied with Australia’s Emily Seebohm for second.
“As soon as she turned with Seebohm, I knew it was game off,” said Schmitz.
After Missy touched the wall 0.35 seconds ahead of the Australian, Phelps came over, gave her a high five, and said the least amount of time he has ever had between two races is 30 minutes — not 13.
“Missy showed that she’s tough,” he said after his 200m butterfly heat. It was the first time Phelps has smiled after a race in this Olympics — more for Missy, it seemed, than for his own qualification in the 200 fly final.
With the 200 free final in less than 24 hours, Missy said she is taking her coaches’ and teammates’ advice to take it one race at a time, and as Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, said, “to just relax and not be rushed.”
“Hopefully I did a good job of staying really relaxed tonight,” she said.
But then she bubbled over.
“I just won an Olympic gold medal!”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.