London • Missy Franklin’s smile is as wide as the River Thames. She could give charm lessons to the Royal Family. The new “face” of American women’s swimming has lit up cameras of the “Today” show and journalists from around the world this week.
Starting Saturday, her shining teeth and quest for “having fun” will be mere backdrop for what time is it now.
For Franklin, the 17-year-old international phenom from Centennial, Colo., it’s time to perform.
It may be a lot to ask for a girl who just finished her junior year of high school. She is unabashedly calling this “my first Olympics” and she is undertaking a task no woman in American history has tried.
Barring fatigue or an unlikely coach’s decision, she will enter a record seven events, starting Saturday with the 400-meter freestyle relay. Counting prelims, Franklin will likely race 18 times in the next eight days. That includes the 100-meter and 200-meter backstrokes, in which she has the fastest times in the world.
Michael Phelps, who swam 17 times in winning a record eight gold medals in Beijing four years ago, talked of how the mental grind dwarfs the physical.
Franklin has her own ideas.
“Just do what you do every single day,” she said. “I’ve gone to so many Grand Prix events where I’ve swum back to back, and [the Olympic] Trials were huge in training for this. I know I’ve done this many events before and we’re going to add in relays, but relays are my favorite part and I think they’re going to give me energy.”
At the Trials, she swam 12 times in six days. Here she adds the potential of three relays and white-hot pressure that has poleaxed many athletes more seasoned than her.
To the U.S. team, Phelps is Yoda in a Speedo. While that image might be visually disturbing, his wealth of knowledge about multiple-event meets is just as deep. This is his fourth Olympics and he’s doing something right. Three more medals and he’ll be the most decorated Olympian of all time.
“I’ve told her if she needs anything, come to me, ask me whatever she needs,” Phelps said. “I’ve told her that throughout the year. You can call me, text me, whatever you need. Ask me questions.
“I reached out to everyone,” she said. “[U.S. swim coach] Teri [McKeever] has done an unbelievable job. She gets the veterans and rookies together and the veterans share all of their knowledge with the rookies. Coming in here for the first time I felt so prepared.”
Leading up to showing the world what all the fuss is about, Franklin certainly isn’t caving to pressure. She was the star lip syncher in the swim team’s video of “Call Me Maybe,” shaking and beaming all the way down a plane aisle.
Apparently, she’s going about it the right way.
“A lot of the advice I’ve gotten is to take in every single moment,” she said. “Just enjoy every single second while I’m here and don’t let it pass me by. Some of the girls on the team said their first Olympics they were so focused on what they were doing they didn’t have as much fun as they wanted to.
“Having them say that put everything in perspective.”
What could put Franklin in perspective is if she wins a gold medal Saturday. That would likely be an upset. The Netherlands won last year’s world championship in 3:33.96 with the U.S. taking the bronze in 3:34.47. Holdovers from that U.S. team are Jessica Hardy, Amanda Weir and Franklin. It has key additions in Allison Schmitt, who beat Franklin in the 200-meter freestyle at the Trials, Lia Neal and Natalie Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist.
Besides Netherlands, Australia and Germany are medal contenders.
“We definitely need people to step up from what they did in Trials,” McKeever said. “I don’t think the women’s 100 free was a particularly strong event.”
Since the Trials, Franklin and her coach, Todd Schmitz, swear her freestyle times will improve. The proof will come Saturday.
“I’ve been so relaxed the whole time I’ve been here,” Franklin said. “It feels like it did before Worlds last year. I feel so comfortable. I’ve never felt so ready to race before.”
Maybe neither has the world.