Coughlin: 'It's time for Missy'
OMAHA, Neb. -- Missy Franklin had roughly 18 minutes between races -- a coffee break for most of us, or the time it takes to fold a load of laundry or scramble some eggs or pay a few bills, tasks that generally don't build up lactic acid or leave us short of breath.
But the 17-year-old from Colorado has been training toward becoming one of the most efficient people on the planet. So she didn't flinch at the prospect of shaking herself off after qualifying fifth for Thursday night's 200-meter freestyle final, swimming an 800-meter warm-down and walking back onto the pool deck fully prepared to sprint through 100 meters of backstroke that represented her first opportunity to clinch an Olympic spot.
It took her 58.85 seconds, an American record.
In the lane next to Franklin, 18-year-old recent high school graduate Rachel Bootsma hit the touchpad 0.64 seconds later.
Two lanes over, 29-year-old Natalie Coughlin, the two-time Olympic champion in the event, had split the first 50 meters at a world-record pace of 28.50 seconds but lost ground after the turn. She charged hard in the last few meters but finished third in 1 minute, 0.06 seconds.
People will call on some familiar metaphors to describe what happened in this race -- a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch, a generational shift. And yes, there were clear winners. But something else transpired in the postrace hug between Coughlin and Franklin: A gentler transfer of power, a woman slipping a string of pearls around a teenager's long neck, stepping back and saying she looks lovely.
And meaning it.
"It's time for Missy," Coughlin told reporters without a scintilla of resentment, as serene as anyone can be after that kind of exertion. "I haven't seen the race, but I think I did exactly what I needed to do tonight. I gave it my best, and that's really all you can ask for. I'm really, really happy for Missy and Bootsma. They're awesome, awesome girls."
Franklin won just as graciously and deferentially.
"Natalie means the world to me," she said. "I have learned so much from her, and I plan to learn so much from her. She still has other chances to make the team, and I am absolutely praying for her that she does because I want to learn more from her, and I would love to be on another team with her."
Franklin's use of the plural "chances" was an understandable mistake. It must be hard for her to grasp that a woman she admires so much, an athlete with 11 Olympic medals, could ever run out of road. But Coughlin has now fallen short in the butterfly and backstroke, and there's only one more event in which she can secure a London berth -- the 100 freestyle, in which she could qualify both individually and as a relay member.
"It's not exactly what I was hoping for coming into this, but I've done everything I could possibly do this year," Coughlin said. "My training has been, frankly, amazing. The races haven't been quite there. I'm a little bummed, but not nearly as much as everyone is expecting me to be. You know, you're walking around the pool deck and people are acting like you're dying or something. I have another shot to make the team in the 100 free, and I'm looking forward to that. For the rest of the season, I'm a freestyler."
Coughlin called Franklin's double, "very, very impressive. I never did it at this level. I did it in college quite a bit, but short course [races in 25-meter pools] is much different from long course. Doing that in front of however many people with so much pressure is really incredible."
Franklin said the short recovery time might have helped her not overthink her big night. "I love doing back-to-backs, and I didn't have time to get nervous for the 100 back, so it worked out perfectly," she said immediately after.
The instant the race was over, her coach, Todd Schmitz, felt the cellphone in his pocket erupt, buzzing with text after text after text -- 26 in the first onslaught. He said he never doubted Wednesday night's double was doable.
"I know my athlete," he said. "She knows me. We've talked about it all year long. We were confident we could do it. ... I'd be the first one to tell you that if she didn't [qualify] in that 100 back, I'd put my credential down and walk off the pool deck. I look like a genius now, but I could have gone the other way."
Schmitz called Franklin's approach to managing the evening "smart" and "mature." It has been apparent for some time that she is a rare jewel of a talent. How fortunate for the U.S. team that Franklin was able to admire another gem all these years.
ESPN.com senior writer Wayne Drehs contributed to this report.
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