2012 LONDON OLYMPICS

Humble U.S. teen Missy Franklin strikes gold in 100 backstroke

 

Missy Franklin, 17, captures gold, and U.S. men finished 1-2 in the 100 backstroke. But Ryan Lochte finished fourth in the 200 freestyle.

WEB VOTE Which sport would you have liked to see included in this year's Summer Olympics?

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

The most remarkable thing about 17-year-old Missy “The Missile” Franklin is not that she won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke Monday night, her second medal these Olympics after taking bronze over the weekend in the 4x100 relay. It isn’t that she won it 14 minutes after swimming a 200-meter freestyle semifinal heat, tough as that certainly was.

No, the reason America will be amazed by this teenager from suburban Denver over the next few days is that she is so normal outside the pool.

She still swims for the Regis Jesuit High School team. She plans to return for her senior year no matter how many medals she wins in the seven events (yes, seven) in which she is entered. “I can’t wait to get back to Regis, it’s the most amazing place in the world,” she said.

Last month, she stuffed her size 13 feet into fancy shoes and attended her junior prom. She has turned down more than $100,000 in endorsements to maintain her amateur status because she is still contemplating college. She is an A-student. Like so many girls her age, she loves One Direction and Justin Bieber. She polishes her nails in bright colors. And, word is she still travels with a teddy bear.

The 6-foot-1 champion giggled as she met with reporters just after the race, incredulous at what had just transpired. Olympic record-holder Emily Seebohm of Australia was at world record pace at the turn and appeared headed for the win, but Franklin overtook her in the final 25 meters and reached the wall in 58.33 seconds, a new American record. Seebohm settled for silver in 58.68, and Aya Terakawa of Japan took bronze.

“[The Olympic experience] is exceeding my expectations one hundred billion times over,” Franklin said. “I couldn’t be happier. I had a blast out there.”

Later in the official press conference, she couldn’t stop smiling. At one point, she took the gold medal out of her pocket, showed it to the gathered reporters and declared: “Isn’t it pretty?’’

She was one of four U.S. medal winners at the pool Monday night.

Matthew Grevers of Lake Forest, Ill., and Nick Thoman of Cincinnati finished 1-2 in the 100-meter backstroke.

“It took me 10 seconds to realize Nick was second, and that made it that much more special,’’ Grevers said. “To go 1-2 shows that the USA is dominant in backstroke.’’

Rebecca Soni of Plainsboro, N.J., won silver in the 100-meter breaststroke for the second Olympics in a row. She finished 0.8 seconds behind 15-year-old Lithuanian phenom Ruta Meilutyte, who had set a European record in the semifinals.

Ryan Lochte, the Florida Gator swim hunk and winner of Saturday’s 400 IM gold, left disappointed for the second night in a row. He was competing in the 200-meter freestyle, one of his signature events, and expected to win gold or silver. Standing in his way were Sun Yang of China, who won the 400-meter gold medal on Saturday, and Yannick Agnel, who anchored the French team and overtook Lochte to win gold in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay Sunday night.

Agnel spoiled Lochte’s plans again. He led wire to wire and won by a full body length over co-silver medalists Sun Yang of China and Park Taehwan of Korea. It was the third swimming gold medal for France in three days, the most that country has ever won. Lochte finished fourth.

“I did my best,” Lochte said. “I guess sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I gave it 110 percent. There’s probably some things I messed up on, but you live and learn. [Agnel is] a great racer. There’s no doubt about it. He’s quick and he showed it last night and tonight. I’m happy for him. He did good.”

The much-hyped Michael Phelps-Lochte rivalry hasn’t materialized thus far, but Franklin made sure the American fans in the stands had plenty to wave their flags about.

Franklin admitted she nearly lost it on the medal podium during the national anthem. She came close to crying, and forgot the words at one point.

“It feels absolutely incredible, I’ve dreamed about this moment my whole life and I can’t believe that just happened,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to do it at 17 and I couldn’t be happier right now…It’s absolutely indescribable. I just saw that No. 1 and after imagining that happening for so long it just doesn’t seem real. You still feel like you’re dreaming.”

The fact that she swam two events back-to-back with 14 minutes in between impressed even Phelps. He sought her out afterward and gave her a high five, telling her he couldn’t imagine how she did that, having never had less than 30 minutes between races himself.

She said the fact that swimming officials let her warm down from her first heat in the diving well rather than taking the five-minute walk through the media interview zone to the regular warm down pool was “huge.’’ When swimmers finish races, they get right back in the water and slowly swim laps to avoid lactic acid buildup and muscle cramps. Typically, they leave the main arena and swim in private. But this was a special circumstance.

Franklin loved the hectic pace.

“I did like 375 meters, and I usually do 1,200. Then, I ran right back into the ready room for the 100 backstroke and it was so much fun. I love doing back-to-back doubles like that. It just gets me so excited. Doesn’t really leave you any time to get nervous, so I was still in my little adrenaline high.’’

And then she giggled. And giggled some more.

Heading into these Olympics, Franklin was considered the future star of American swimming. Turns out, she was ahead of schedule. She swims again Tuesday night in the 200-meter freestyle final.

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