Commentary

Fun just beginning for Franklin, Ledecky

Updated: August 4, 2012, 11:12 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPN.com

LONDON -- One is so young she's dreaming about securing her learner's permit (the driver's license is a year away). The other, the new world-record holder, simply yearns to return home to slip into a pair of overalls.

Overalls? Do Olympic gold-medal champions actually wear overalls?

Missy Franklin does. It's a tradition in her town of Aurora, Colorado, to decorate them each Friday before the big football game.

"I can't wait for that," she beamed.

Franklin added a third gold medal (fourth overall) in the pool Friday by setting a new world record in the 200-meter backstroke. Throughout these Games, she has dedicated her performances to the victims of the horrific movie theater shooting in her beloved Aurora. Even at 17, Melissa Jeannette Franklin has grasped the weight of her accomplishments and the impact her actions can have on a community, whether it's a Colorado town steeped in tragedy or the U.S. swimming program in search of a new identity.

As Michael Phelps butterflied his way toward retirement with yet another gold medal of his own Friday, Franklin expanded on her emergence as the sunny (future) face of American swimming. She flew to London with substantial expectations in tow and delivered with a smile. Franklin could reap millions from her incredible swimming portfolio, yet continues to eschew endorsement opportunities in favor of the chance to enjoy a normal college experience.

(That is, whatever "normal" means when you will be an Olympic champion and a household name taking freshman English).

As the media gathered in the basement of the Aquatics Centre to interview -- and coronate -- Franklin after her record-breaking race, an amazing development began simultaneously unfolding upstairs.

Fifteen-year-old American Katie Ledecky had burst into the pool and seized the lead in the 800 freestyle. Ledecky, the youngest American on any of our nation's Olympic teams, was not expected to win this race. British swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who won the gold and set a world record in Beijing in 2008, was the favorite and anticipated yet another spirited battle with rival Lotte Friis.

But the teen from Bethesda, Md., had other ideas. After watching Missy win gold, then receiving a high five from Phelps after his gold-medal race, Ledecky was, she said, "really pumped up."

It was quiet in the Ready Room before her race, but as she watched Franklin touch first, Ledecky wanted to squeal with joy. "Instead, I kept it to myself, and used it as extra energy," she said.

The naysayers in the interview area predicted a crash and burn for the frisky teenager in the final laps, but Ledecky kept up a world-record pace until the final few meters.

Her stunning victory, following gold-medal performances from Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte and Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, has sounded the alarm that a new generation of swimmers are prepared to step up to the podium, with 17-year old Missy Franklin as their pied piper.

"My coach said this has turned into the Youth Olympics," Franklin said.

Todd Schmitz is right. Consider Adlington, who was just 19 when she struck gold in Beijing. Now 23 years old, she had to "settle" for two bronze medals, a disappointment for a host country that had hoped for much more from one of their signature athletes.

"I've changed so much [since I was 19]," Adlington said. "My body can't recover as quickly. Everyone says, 'You're so young,' But in distance swimming, I'm really not."

Ledecky is so young, she can't vote, rent a car, drive a car or purchase a ticket to an R-rated movie. Then again, in these Games, she is not alone. Told there were six teenagers who won gold, Ledecky answered, "I noticed that."

After Shiwen's world record in the 400 individual medley, American coach John Leonard questioned whether the 16-year old swimmer was doping. Ledecky was forced to address similar questions in the wake of her victory Friday.

"Absolutely false," she said without blinking when asked about the possibility of doping.

Ledecky swam the 800 free in 8:36.05 a year ago at the Junior Nationals, but, she maintains, it has been hard work and a steady progression of training that has enabled her to shave so many seconds off her time.

Last fall, Ledecky and her coach, Yuri Suguiyama, began discussing the Olympic trials. When Suguiyama asked her what the ultimate goal in that situation would be, Ledecky answered it with a question: "To qualify for the Olympics?"

"We won't tell anybody," her coach answered, "but that will be our goal."

Somewhere along the way, that goal became obsolete. Showing up at the Olympics wasn't enough. Ledecky said she understands why so many people are astonished by her performance.

"I didn't really expect gold," she deadpanned, "but I'll take it."

Franklin was the overwhelming favorite in her 200 backstroke race, but sometimes those are the hardest victories to bring home. It has been a magical summer for Franklin, who has done everything she hoped for this, save one thing: She wanted to teach swimming lessons to young kids, but simply did not have the time.

"Those kids are our future," she explained. "When I see young swimmers loving it so much, it reminds me of why I love it."

Ledecky remembers the first swimmer who made a lasting impression on her as a 6-year-old; his name was Michael Phelps, and, after she had a chance to say hello to him, he signed an autograph for her, patted her on the back, and went on his way. Nearly nine years later, they shared a pool, a high-five and Olympic gold.

London is Phelps' fond farewell. But for the kid without a license and the girl with a closet full of overalls, the fun is just beginning.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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