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(AP Photo/Matt Slocum) United States' Missy Franklin and Australia's Belinda Hocking right, react after competing in the women's 100-meter backstroke swimming heat at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Sunday, July 29, 2012.
Missy Franklin exemplifies future of U.S. Olympic swimming
Olympics » Bronze medal for ‘Missy the Missile’ won’t be the last.
First Published Jul 29 2012 06:35 am • Last Updated Jul 30 2012 12:07 am

London • The first time Missy Franklin jumped in an Olympic pool for a race, she emerged from the water with a medal. Now that’s the way to get your feet wet.

And this bronze medal won’t be the last for the Colorado teenager. "Missy the Missile" is going to need a bigger trophy case.

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"You guys have said all along she’s the future," U.S. swim coach Teri McKeever declared Saturday. "The future is now. Let’s do it."

Swimming the first leg of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, Franklin staked Team USA to the lead, then stood on the deck and watched as her teammates held on for third place, finishing behind Australia and the Netherlands.

Back in the suburban Denver neighborhood where Franklin grew up in the pool across the street from her house, the Heritage Greens Gators present a trophy after every summer season to a young athlete who not only swims fast, but also does so with a smile that never quits. On the night she claimed her first piece of Olympic hardware, the reward was bigger, but the joy was the same.

"Oh, my gosh," Franklin said. "I totally remember the Gator Greatness Award. When was that, the fifth grade?"

So what’s better? An Olympic bronze medal? Or the Gator Greatness Award?

"Both are really good," Franklin said.

Then she laughed a laugh as big as her future. First lady Michelle Obama was in the audience of the Aquatics Center, applauding Franklin. And the senior-to-be at Regis Jesuit High School is just getting warmed up. That’s one event down, six more to go in a week that could make Franklin one of the brightest stars of NBC’s five-ring circus, the best made-for-TV drama in sports.

With the most ambitious Olympic program ever attempted by a U.S. female swimmer on Franklin’s plate, the coaching staff decided to rest her during the morning session of preliminary heats, which determined the top eight teams that advanced to the finals. The situation led to a personally awkward and professionally difficult choice for McKeever, who benched 29-year-old team captain Natalie Coughlin for what figures to be the final race of the highly decorated Olympic veteran’s career.

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Holding a bronze medal in a box that would be handed to Coughlin later for her contribution to the relay team, McKeever’s eyes showed the pain of saying goodbye to a swimmer she nicknamed Speed Racer. Ask Franklin her role model in swimming, and she will immediately point to Coughlin, who will retire with a dozen Olympic medals.

But blink and somebody younger and stronger will outkick a fading legend to the pool wall. It’s the bittersweet truth of sports. Franklin’s time is now. "Missy is a class act, a world-caliber athlete and handles pressure really well," U.S. swim coach Gregg Troy said.

Since the time she was a first-grader, Franklin drew pictures of herself in the presence of Olympic rings. In truth, reality proved to be larger, stranger and better than anything a 6-year-old girl could imagine. "It was really weird having the first race be a final," she said. "I’m not used to that, but it was so exciting."

Franklin bolted off the starting blocks and covered her 100 meters in 53.52 seconds, setting such a fast pace for her U.S. teammates that tgey produced an American record in the event. After the achievement, she hugged everybody within arm’s reach. As the clock showed 11:28 on a weekend night, and with his star swimmer due back to start competition in the backstroke with hours, Missy’s personal coach, Todd Schmitz, already had his game face on.

But even as Schmitz pushed, pulled and dragged her toward the exit in search of a solid night’s sleep, the enthusiasm bubbled out of Franklin like champagne dancing in a crystal glass. Cheers.

A little more than 60 minutes before Franklin made her first big splash at the Summer Games, it was impossible to miss a look on the face of Michael Phelps we would not have previously recognized. After getting crushed by American rival Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley, pure frustration gripped a swimmer long believed to be unbeatable. Phelps finished fourth. "It was just a crappy race," he said.

The greatest swimmer in U.S. history came to London looking bored, as if Phelps was weary of staring at the world through goggles. He stated his lone remaining motivation as "how many toppings do I want on my sundae."

Swimming is way too hard to do without the love.

Franklin is loving every second of the Olympics. Her time is now. Stand back, and enjoy "Missy the Missile" having a blast.

This is like watching fireworks. Makes you smile, doesn’t it?

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