LONDON Missy Franklin stared out on the horde of reporters, suddenly sounding very much like a high school senior-to-be. I dont like being up here alone, she said nervously.
Then, just like that, she turned on a big smile and worked the room like a pro.
Thanks to this Colorado teenager, Americas swim hopes are back on track at the Olympics.
Michael Phelps has yet to win a gold medal, and Ryan Lochtes star has dimmed just a bit. So it was Franklin, a Centennial native and senior-to-be at Regis Jesuit High School, providing a much-needed boost to swimmings powerhouse nation, coming back less than 14 minutes after swimming a semifinal heat to win the first gold medal of what figures to be a dazzling career.
Indescribable, the 17-year-old Franklin said after rallying to win the 100-meter backstroke Monday. I still cant believe that happened. I dont even know what to think. I saw my parents reaction on the screen, and I just started bawling. I cant even think right now.
After finishing up the semis of the 200 freestyle, she hopped out of the pool and headed to the diving well for a quick warmdown. She didnt even have time to make it to the practice pool, not when her bigger event was coming right up.
Even Phelps was amazed at Franklins stamina, saying he never had done back-to-back races that close together at such a major meet. His quickest turnaround was about a half-hour.
Shes a racer, and she knows what to do, Phelps said.
Matt Grevers kept the gold medals coming for the U.S. in rat-a-tat fashion, following up Franklins win with one of his own in the mens 100 back. For good measure, Nick Thoman made it a 1-2 finish for the red, white and blue.
Rebecca Soni nearly pulled out a third U.S. gold, rallying furiously on the return leg of the 100 breaststroke. But she couldnt quite catch blazing Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, a gold medalist at the tender age of 15.
Good thing for the U.S. that Franklin and the other Americans are coming through.
Phelps missed the podium in his 2012 Olympic debut, and Lochte has turned in two consecutive disappointing performances after opening the games with a dominant win in the 400 individual medley. He finished fourth and off the podium Monday night in the 200 freestyle, which Frances Yannick Agnel won by a full body length against a field with gold medalists galore.
On Sunday, Lochte anchored the U.S. in the 4x100 free relay, taking over with a seemingly comfortable lead. But Agnel chased him down on the final leg, giving France the gold.
Now, another defeat.
I did my best, Lochte said. I guess sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I gave it 110 percent. Theres probably some things I messed up on, but you live and learn. (Agnel is) a great racer. Theres no doubt about it. Hes quick, and he showed it (Sunday) night and (Monday). Im happy for him. He did good.
Franklin, who was rattled less than two weeks before the Olympics by the Aurora theater shooting not far from her home, barely advanced from the 200 free semis. She qualified for tonights final with the eighth-fastest time, but clearly she was saving something for the race that really mattered.
Shes still got five more events to go, having started her Olympics with a relay bronze and leaving plenty of time to come away from these games as Americas big star in the post-Phelps era.
The winningest Olympian ever plans to retire after these games.
Australias Emily Seebohm, the top qualifier, led at the turn and was under world-record pace, but Franklin showed a remarkable finishing kick. With her arms whirling and size-13 feet pounding the water, the 6-1 swimmer passed the Aussie in the final 25 meters and lunged toward the wall for a winning time of 58.33 seconds.
She broke into a big smile but was clearly exhausted, her head dropping back against the wall. Seebohm settled for silver in 58.68, and Japans Aya Terakawa took bronze in 58.83.
You never know until you see that scoreboard, so I was just going as fast as I could until I got my hand on the wall, Franklin said. It was 110 percent effort, and all the work paid off.
The 6-8 Grevers pulled off a similar rally on his return lap, winning the 100 back in 52.16 the fifth consecutive Olympics, dating to the 1996 Atlanta Games, that the U.S. men have won the backstroke. Thoman joined his teammate on the medal podium at 52.97, a finish they were thinking about all along and reiterated just before the final.
David Marsh, Thomans coach, brought it up right moments before they went out to the pool, saying 1-2.
Grevers said he and Thoman knew they werent jinxing anything, and they were right, though Grevers didnt notice right away that Americans took the top two spots.
I must be selfish because it took me a good 10 seconds to realize he got second, he quipped. Thats something I should do right away. But when I noticed, that moment became much more special. To know that we can go 1-2 in that event, again really shows the USAs dominance in backstroke right now when were able to step up.
Japans Ryosuke Irie was third in 52.97.
Ive been watching the Olympics for as long as I can remember, Thoman said. The first one I really remember is the 92 Barcelona Games and just watching guys back then. Seeing Lenny Krayzelburg, my idol, and then Aaron Piersol, again my idol, who I got to train with for a little while. Just being able to carry on that tradition, its a great thing.
Agnel showed that his brilliant swim on the Olympic relay was no fluke. The baby-faced, 6-6 Frenchman did it again in the 200 free, leading from start to finish in perhaps the most star-studded race of these games even without Phelps, who passed up a chance to defend his Olympic title.
That might have been a good move by Phelps. It was hard to see anyone beating Agnel on this night, as he pulled away to win by a full body length in 1 minute, 43.14 seconds. No one came close to challenging him, and he looked just as strong at the end as he did at the beginning.
I really didnt expect that time, Agnel said. I had a race plan in my head, but this is above my expectations and hopes. Im delighted. Its a childhood dream come true. I had to start quickly over the first 100 meters. I did that. Then I worked on keeping my speed and putting all my guts into the last 50. I dont know what to say. It worked.
French President Francois Hollande came to the mixed zone to congratulate Agnel, shaking his hand warmly in the chaos of reporters and cameras. He was dwarfed by the swimmer, who gave the country its third swimming gold of the games its most ever.
And theres still five nights to go at the pool.
Remarkable, two gold medals two nights in a row, Hollande said. Its a big reward for French swimming, a proud moment for him and encouraging for the whole Olympic team.
South Koreas Park Tae-hwan and Chinas Sun Yang tied for the silver in 1:44.93. But Lochte, the reigning world champion who seemed poised to have a huge Olympics just 48 hours earlier, faded out of the medals. So did world-record holder Paul Biedermann of Germany.
Soni tried to make it three in a row, but Meilutyte dashed those hopes. Competing for the first time on a major international stage, the 15-year-old showed her strong performances in the prelims and semis were no fluke.
She built a big lead on the outward lap, then held off the 2008 Olympic silver medalist on the return. Meilutyte touched in 1:05.47, while Sonis rally came up eight-hundredths of the second short. Japan took yet another bronze with Satomi Suzuki in 1:06.46.
Meilutyte broke into tears on the medal stand, the enormity of her accomplishment at such a young age finally sinking in. She became the first Lithuanian to win a swimming medal and took her countrys first gold in any sport since a shooting gold in 2004.
I cant believe it, she said. Its too much for me. I cant really say anything. It was hard and difficult.
Soni swept the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at last years world championships, and was hoping to do the same in London. Now, shell look to defend her title in the 200 breast.
Im a little disappointed, she said. I knew it was going to come down to the last five meters and I wish I had five more meters to get to that finish. It was a great race overall.
Lochte is looking more and more like a swimmer who took on too much of a workload. Hes already raced six times in three events covering a total of 1,500 meters over the first three days in London. He has three more events to turn things around but definitely has the look of a tired swimmer.
If nothing else, it shows just how unbelievable Phelps was when he won a record eight gold medals in 2008.
To win six of them is a really hard thing to accomplish, Grevers said. Your bodys going to get tired. Its not just a physical strain, its an emotional strain to try to get up and compete every time.
Phelps didnt have any medal races on this night, but he did advance comfortably through the prelims and semis of the 200 butterfly, going into todays final with the fourth-best time.
This will be his second attempt at becoming the first male swimmer to win the same individual event at three consecutive Olympics. He failed in the 400 medley, and Japans Kosuke Kitajima came up short of the same feat in the 100 breaststroke.
As for Franklin, someone noticed afterward that she wasnt wearing her medal.
She pulled it out of her pocket and marveled, Isnt it pretty.
Then, she showed her age again. Theres still one more year to go at Regis Jesuit.
My junior year was awesome, Franklin said. I cant wait to go back to Regis!