LONDON -- Missy Franklin is bubbly and giggly, sunny and happy, all the adjectives that apply to a happy-go-lucky girl who cannot wait for her amazingly awesome senior year of high school to start.
But the new face of American swimming is poised and articulate beyond her laughter, beyond her years. With the retirement of the old face of American swimming one day away, Franklin distilled the legacy of Michael Phelps to its essence.
“He’s kind of made people kind of rethink the impossible,” Franklin said.
Impossible does not end with eight gold medals in Beijing, or with the final swim of Phelps’ career here Saturday. Impossible is the notion that the United States could remain every bit the aquatic powerhouse without the most decorated athlete in the sport’s history.
Impossible is Phelps winning gold in his final individual swim Friday, completing a three-peat in the 100-meter butterfly. Impossible is Franklin setting a world record in the women’s 200 backstroke Friday, the exclamation point on an Olympics in which she will compete in seven events, a la Phelps.
Impossible too is Katie Ledecky, at 15, breaking the longest-standing record in U.S. swimming. Janet Evans held the American standard in the women’s 800 freestyle for 23 years until Ledecky won the event in 8 minutes, 14.63 seconds Friday.
Of the thousands of kid swimmers inspired by Phelps, Ledecky is proud to be one.
“Michael is the first Olympian I ever met, when I was 6,” Ledecky said. “Just to hear a good luck from him before the race was really cool.”
LeBron James was in the house Friday, as were Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. With its performance, the U.S. asserted that its swimming empire would not fall after the retirement of Phelps.
Cullen Jones won silver in the men’s 50 free, and Elizabeth Beisel bronze in the women’s 200 back. Add those to the three golds, and the U.S. has won 28 swimming medals. No other country has won more than nine, a fine buffer for any post-Phelps decline.
The swimming competition concludes Saturday, with Phelps set to swim on the men’s medley relay team and Franklin on the women’s medley relay team.
Phelps could finish these Olympics with four gold medals and two silver. Franklin could finish with four golds and one bronze. At 17, she is two years younger than Phelps was in Athens, when he won the first eight of what will almost certainly be a record 22 career medals.
“There’s so much I still have to learn from Michael,” said Franklin, who set a world mark of 2:04.06 in the 200 backstroke. “But, just watching the way he handles himself, he goes through so much every single day. I see how he handles everything with such calmness.
“That’s what really kind of opened my eyes a little bit, how he was so calm and so relaxed before every race. You never, ever see him in a panic.”
Not even Friday, when the last individual race of his career appeared to spectators to be bordering on disaster. He had won the 100 butterfly in Athens, and again in Beijing. This time, at the halfway point, he was seventh in the eight-man field.
“I don’t even want to complain about going slower or having a bad turn or finish,” said Phelps, whose winning time of 51.21 seconds was slower than his semifinal of 50.86. “I’m not even going to say that. I’m just happy that the last one was a win. That’s all I really wanted coming into the night.
“We can smile and be happy.”
If Friday was any indication, the notoriously stoic Phelps might unleash his emotions after he climbs out of the pool Saturday. He did shed a tear or two on the medal podium Friday, even as he said he is focusing on the last race itself rather than the end of his career.
“To be honest, I thought it would hit me a lot harder than what it is right now,” Phelps said. “A lot of those emotions haven’t really come through my brain over the last week. I think, once I am done and tomorrow is over, there is going to be a lot more emotion that really comes out.”
Franklin, in her typically effervescent way, said she could not wait to return to her Colorado high school for her senior year, so she could attend the football games and make her senior overalls.
“For our football games, we have white overalls and we decorate them and wear them,” Franklin said.
Phelps, who is 27, swam one fewer event than he did in Beijing. This might be less about passing the torch than recharging it.
“I’m only 17,” Franklin said. “There is no such thing as fatigue.”