RIO DE JANEIRO — Four years ago, she was the darling of the London Games, the 17-year-old high schooler who burst onto the Olympic scene and won a female-record five medals, four of them gold. Her bubbly personality and infectious, never-ending smile made her just as popular away from the pool as she was in the water.
But on a windy Monday night in South America, Missy Franklin’s smile went away — at least temporarily — replaced by reddish, tear-filled eyes and a genuine sense of confusion. Her voice shook as she tried to explain how she failed to make the final in the 200-meter freestyle, finishing last in her heat and 12th overall in a time of 1:57.56.
“I wish I could tell you,” Franklin said when asked what went wrong. “I gave it everything I had and it just wasn’t there. I did the best I could.”
Franklin’s time was nearly a half-second slower than her prelim time on Monday afternoon. It was the culmination of a challenging couple of years that included a back injury in 2014 and a circuitous career path that included swimming collegiately for Cal before returning to her age-group coach, Todd Schmitz, in 2015 in hopes of finding the form that stole the show in London. But it hasn’t happened. Franklin was inconsistent at the Olympic trials in Omaha last month, failing to qualify for the U.S. team in the 100 backstroke, the event in which she won her first gold in London.
In Rio, she was not a favorite for gold in either of her individual events — Monday’s 200 free or the 200 backstroke that she will swim on Thursday.
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“I felt I tried a lot harder this morning, so to go slower is one of those things I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this year, what’s been going wrong, but I haven’t been able to figure it out,” Franklin said. “But you don’t understand everything, and understanding doesn’t always bring you peace.”
Schmitz said Monday that he is unaware of any injuries affecting Franklin. But he and Franklin have both suggested that she has struggled at times to balance the pressures and expectations that come with turning professional and building a career off promotional endorsements. In London, she was the fresh-faced teenager who could do no wrong. In Rio, the world expects gold-medal greatness.
It also isn’t easy living up to a reputation of constant glee.
“I definitely think it’s something more than physical,” Schmitz said. “Obviously, we saw a little bit of that manifest itself at trials. There is clearly something that is not connected. She was nervous this morning — you could see it.”
Franklin’s Rio Olympics aren’t over, not with the 200-meter backstroke looming Thursday, another event in which she won gold in London (in a world record time of 2:04.06). She will also compete in the 400-meter freestyle relay on Wednesday. Schmitz is optimistic the event will help lift her spirits.
“When she puts that cap on that says U.S. for a relay, whether its prelims, finals or both, whatever — she brings her A-game,” Schmitz said. “That will help her kick over that barrier. She’s a gamer.”
Added Franklin: “I need to keep my head up and doing what I can every day to be the best I can be right now. You just have to put it behind you.”
That process began seconds after Franklin spoke to reporters, when the swimmer stopped at the end of the interview area to watch on a television as teammate Katie Ledecky competed in the second semifinal of the 200 free. It is the utterly dominant Ledecky who will likely leave Rio not only with the title of the world’s greatest female swimmer — something many had once said of Franklin – but also as the greatest swimmer in the world, period. Yet there Franklin stood, watching with great intent as Ledecky swam the second-fastest time of the semifinals. Franklin nodded up and down, clapped, and then walked away.
“It’s easy for people to look at elite-level athletes and just think they are superhuman,” Schmitz said. “But they are just like the rest of us. They have good days and bad days. It’s not the result we wanted. But she left it in the pool. And we have to learn from it.”