Last night, while sitting with my family watching the 2016 Rio Olympics, we watched American Katie Ledecky touch the wall after overtaking Australia’s Tamsin Cook and breaking away to capture her third gold and fourth medal overall of these Olympics in Swimming, as she anchored the United States’ women’s 4×200 freestyle relay team. When (yes when, not if) she wins the 800m freestyle on Friday night – and she certainly will barring a complete meltdown in the pool – the 19-year-old phenomenon will complete the first 200-400-800 treble in 48 years and become the third American woman to capture four golds at one Olympics.
The second was Missy Franklin, who also won gold on Wednesday night, though she was nowhere to be seen on the podium as the anthem played in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. Missy was the darling of the 2012 Olympics. She had the megawatt smile, size 13 feet and five-medal spree – which included world records in the 400 medley relay and 200 backstroke – and she captured our country’s imagination. She would back it up again at the 2013 world championships, as she hauled in a record six gold medals. It seemed the sky was the limit.
That all seems a lifetime ago as Franklin has been nothing short as a complete disappointment in 2016.
At the Olympic Trials, she failed to qualify for the 100 backstroke, one of her signature events. She struggled to qualify for two individual events and a relay, which was a dramatic reduction from the seven events she handled in London.
In Rio, Franklin’s last-place finish in the 200 freestyle semi-final and failure to qualify for the final with only the 13th-fastest time of the 16 swimmers left her teary-eyed and beaten. Then, although she helped the 4×200 team qualify in the prelims, she was dropped for the final – passed over for the same relay she’d led off in London to win the third of her four golds. Maya DiRado, Allison Schmitt and Leah Smith joined Ledecky in prime time, with Franklin, Melanie Margalis and Cierra Runge awarded medals for afternoon duties.
Many armchair quarterbacks and coaches have a theory on what’s happened to Franklin: the decision to remain an amateur and attend Cal; the debilitating back spasms that surfaced on the eve of the 2014 Pan-Pacific Championships; the bevy of sponsor and media obligations that may or may not be compromising her training. Franklin herself is trying to figure out how it all went wrong.
Now, all is not completely lost, as she has one more chance to win a gold – this time in the pool – with the 200 backstroke starting with Thursday with the preliminary heats and semi-finals.
Sometimes an athlete can lose something they can’t get back. Only time will tell if Franklin’s fade will continue or if her underwhelming Rio Olympics are merely prelude to a Tokyo 2020 redemption tour – the sort of plotline that would have NBC execs licking their chops.