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Swimmer Missy Franklin, darling of London Olympics, faces some bitter disappointment in Rio

Although Missy Franklin, left, did not swim on the gold medal-winning 800-meter freestyle relay team, she was all smiles when helping the team advance through qualifying.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When Missy Franklin arrived at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Wednesday morning, the four-time gold medalist thought about the chance the new day presented to move beyond her tear-stained start to the Games.

“That’s an opportunity that’s sitting there for me right now,” Franklin said. “Whether it goes the way I want, or it doesn’t, I’m going to seize the opportunity and at the end of the day I’m going to be proud of myself for that.”

Instead, the day provided another reminder of how much can change in four years.

With a made-for-television smile and effervescent personality, Franklin became the darling of the London Olympics. She danced in an airplane aisle for the U.S. swimming team’s “Call Me Maybe” lip sync video that went viral. She always seemed to say the right thing, usually with a heaping dose of youthful enthusiasm. She cruised to four victories and set world records in the 200-meter backstroke and 400-meter medley relay. The triumphs came so easily.

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The wide smile is still there these days. So is the personality that helped her land endorsements for orange juice and swimsuits and cereal. But similar success in the pool hasn’t followed in recent months.

The Games are the latest chapter in an extended period of struggles that don’t have a clear cause or answer. She hasn’t clocked a personal best since 2014. She’s dealt with an injured back, left UC Berkeley to turn professional in 2015 and juggled the jet-setting obligations that come with being one of the sport’s most recognizable faces.

Last week, Franklin insisted she was in the best shape of her life. She blamed a poor showing at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in June and July — she didn’t qualify to defend her title in the 100-meter backstroke — on feeling pressure to live up to the four gold medals. She thought the month since had helped to refocus. She thought the old Missy was back.

But the difficulties have continued, now with the world watching.

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Franklin swam in the preliminary heat of the 800-meter freestyle relay Wednesday, then was one of three swimmers dropped for the final. The new group, which included Katie Ledecky, quickly replacing Franklin as the face of U.S. women’s swimming, went on to win the gold medal. Leah Smith, Allison Schmitt and Maya Dirado joined Ledecky to record the third-fastest time in history.

“I have never smiled more before, during or after a race,” said Ledecky, who has won three gold medals and a silver at these Games.

In other finals Wednesday, Josh Prenot took silver in the 200-meter breaststroke and Nathan Adrian, the defending Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, finished third in the event, behind winner Kyle Chalmers of Australia. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte qualified for their final duel in the 200-meter individual medley.

After the preliminary, Franklin talked earnestly about her desire for coaches to use the four swimmers who gave the U.S. the best chance to win in the relay. She wanted to be one. But her words hinted at the understanding that she wouldn’t have the opportunity.

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“I want what’s best for us and best for our country, no matter what,” Franklin said.

Still, even two months ago, the suggestion that she would be left off the relay would’ve dropped jaws.

Earlier in the week, Franklin finished 12th in the 200-meter freestyle preliminary heats to narrowly qualify for the semifinals. Hours later, she came in last in her semifinal with a slower time than her so-so preliminary mark and didn’t advance to the final.

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This wasn’t the same Missy Franklin who dominated U.S. televisions four years ago. Her perpetually sunny disposition faltered after the race. Her voice cracked. She cried.

“I gave it everything and I wasn’t good enough,” she said at the time. “I have been trying to wrap my mind around what’s going on. I have to keep fighting and believing.”

On Tuesday, she tweeted to her almost 400,000 followers that the race’s result left her heartbroken. Among the thousands of replies were messages of encouragement from former Olympian Natalie Coughlin and champion Paralympic swimmer Brad Snyder.

Franklin stayed away from the competition pool Tuesday. Her roommates in the athletes village, including Cierra Runge, tried to cheer her up with dancing and dark chocolate and amusing Snapchats.

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“Whatever I can do to make her laugh,” Runge said.

Franklin spent time on the phone with her mother too, as part of an attempt to reset and regain her relentless optimism.

“There’s no one that’s a better therapist than your mom,” she said.

The 200 backstroke, Franklin’s best event, still remains. She finished second to Dirado in the race at trials. This is a final opportunity.

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“I still have a lot to give,” Franklin said, “and I’m going to give it all.”

But no one knows what the event will hold. The struggles are there for all to see. She can only enter the water and hope this time is different.

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

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