LONDON — Missy Franklin didn’t have time for nerves before swimming the 100-meter backstroke final.
A packed race schedule at the London Olympics left Franklin 14 minutes between her 200-meter freestyle semifinal heat and the backstroke final. No time for a proper recovery between races. No problem. With impressive resiliency and a strong finishing kick, Franklin won her first gold of the Games, stretching for the wall in a time of 58.33 seconds.
“It’s indescribable,” said Franklin. “I just saw that No. 1. After thinking about it and imagining it happening for so long, it doesn’t seem real. You dream about it so often that you still feel like you’re dreaming. I still feel like someone needs to pinch me, I felt like that this whole experience. I’m so happy right now.”
Franklin’s gold started a parade of medal-winning performances by US swimmers, though a haul of two golds and two silvers could not entirely erase the disappointment and shock of Ryan Lochte finishing fourth in the men’s 200 freestyle. While Lochte said his 1:45.04 finish was a “solid time,” he acknowledged that he “can go a lot faster.”
In the men’s 100 backstroke, Matt Grevers swam a fast return lap to set an Olympic record of 52.16 and collect the second US gold of the evening. Teammate Nick Thoman finished in 52.92 for silver, marking the ninth time the US has taken the top two spots in the event at the Olympics.
“This is something I’ve been wanting to get since I was 10 years old,” said Grevers. “I came so close in 2008, getting a silver. When Aaron Piersol [2008 gold medal winner] announced that he retired, I knew it was a great opportunity for me to try and step in those shoes and hopefully get a gold medal. And I did it.
“It took me a good 10 seconds to realize Nick got second. But when I noticed, that moment became that much more special. To see that we could go 1-2 in that event really shows the USA’s dominance in backstroke right now.”
Rebecca Soni added another silver medal in the women’s 100 breaststroke, finishing in 1:05.55 and missing out on gold by .08 seconds. Ruta Meilutyyte, a 15-year-old Lithuanian phenom, took the gold.
But the 17-year-old Franklin was the teenager of the moment Monday night.
Franklin took center stage at the Aquatics Centre and shifted some of the focus off the up-and-down fortunes of Michael Phelps and Lochte. Phelps, who understands better than anyone the pressures of competing in a packed slate of Olympic swimming events, congratulated Franklin on her gold and quick turnaround with a few words and a high-five. Phelps told Franklin, “I can’t believe you just did that.” Upon receiving her medal and hearing the national anthem, Franklin seemed in a state of disbelief as well.
“I was trying to sing, but I was crying at the same time,” said Franklin. “And I forgot the words because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just a huge mess. Just seeing that flag being raised was so incredibly unbelievable. I just never dreamed that it would feel like that. All the things I’d gone through passed through my mind, the early morning wake-ups, the practices, the doubles, all the meets that I’ve been to, all the friends that I’ve made, everything leading up to that moment. It was so unbelievably worth it.”
Looking back on his career, Phelps couldn’t recall a turnaround between races shorter than 30 minutes. Still, he provided valuable advice about the double to Franklin and her coach, Todd Schmitz, ahead of time.
“Todd and Missy asked me what I could tell them to help them with not having very much time,” said Phelps. “I said, ‘You’re in the second heat [of the women’s 200 freestyle]. You have a perfect set up. All you have to do is go judge what you have to do to make the finals. That’s all you have to do. You just want a spot in the finals.’ She’s a racer and she knows what to do. She showed that in the 100 back. Missy showed a lot tonight. She’s tough.”
And it all worked out perfectly with Franklin conserving energy in the heat, making it as much of a warm-up swim as she could, and earning the last spot in the final.
“I knew that it was going to be tough tonight with that really quick turnaround,” said Franklin. “But I love them, because they’re fun for me. I love getting out there and swimming first and getting those nerves out of the way, then coming right back and swimming again. It’s so exciting for me. I have so much fun with it. And it makes the experience easier to take in, I guess, because I know that I’m not going to have a lot of these opportunities. So, when I’m out there and racing back to back, the adrenaline is going like crazy and I love it.”
Franklin edged Olympic record-holder and favorite Emily Seebohm of Australia. At the turn, Seebohm was 0.14 seconds under world-record pace. But Franklin gathered momentum on the return lap and passed Seebohm for the lead with a few strokes to go. Seebohm said she was so nervous Monday that she couldn’t eat and wondered if repeatedly going through the race in her mind made her tired. Seebohm finished in 58.68, followed by Japan’s Aya Terakawa in an Asian record of 58.83.
“One of the best things about backstroke is it’s really hard to take a little sneak peek at where everyone else is,” said Franklin. “That helps me a lot, just staying focused in my own lane and my own race. I knew the whole heat was going to be out really fast. And I knew that I needed to be, too. So, I took it out in my first 28 ever, which I was thrilled with and brought it home and just tried to get my hand on the wall.”
Given how quickly Seebohm started, Franklin was asked if she ever thought she was in trouble.
“You can’t have those moments of worry when you’re swimming because swimming is so mental,” said Franklin. “You have to just know that you can do it. You have to have faith in yourself. If you have those moments, it just goes downhill from there. You just have to keep telling yourself you can do it, no matter where you are in a race, that you can just pull it out and finish with everything that you have.”