Franklin breaks out at Worlds

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SHANGHAI -- After Saturday evening, can 16-year-old Missy Franklin ever burst into her home in Centennial, Colo., after a day of high school and announce to her parents, as she often does, "This has been the best day ever?" Because days like July 30 are going to be hard to beat.

On a night when she solidified -- make that gilded -- her status as the breakout star of the US team, the 6-foot-1 Franklin won the 200 backstroke, her favorite event, in a time of 2:05.10, lopping nearly a second off the American record she set on Friday and coming within .29 seconds of the world record set by Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry at the 2009 Worlds in Rome. Ninety minutes later, she anchored the medley relay with a ferocious 52.79 freestyle split, helping the US women set a new American record of 3:55.61 and win their first medley relay world title since 1998. Previously this week, she swam the fastest leg on the silver-medal-winning 4x100 free relay, won a bronze in the 50 backstroke and led off the gold-medal-winning 4x200 free relay with a split that would have won the 200 free individual event.

"She's a stud," says Michael Phelps after winning the 100 butterfly, his second individual gold and sixth medal of the meet. "She's super good. Oh my gosh. One hundreds, two hundreds, fifties, leading off relays, the world's fastest 200 free -- she does it all."

Even Phelps, the gold standard for versatility, wasn't as accomplished at Franklin's age. As a 16-year-old in his first World Championships, in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2001, he won one medal, a gold in the 200 fly, breaking his own world record. Franklin will leave Shanghai with five medals, including three golds, and two American records.

Todd Schmitz, Franklin's coach at the Colorado Stars, a team that trains in a 25-yard high school pool in suburban Denver, admits even he didn't expect Franklin to leave win three gold medals, and he has paid for his doubt. Earlier in the week he made a deal with Franklin: if she did one of three things: medal in the 50 back; leadoff the 4x200 with a split of 1:55 or win a gold medal in the 800 free relay, he'd shave off his goatee. "I walked into the warmdown pool and I just looked at her and said, three for three? I guess you really wanted me to shave," he said. (He'll have to keep the new look for a bit longer: Franklin told him if she won the 200 back, he'd have to stay clean-shaven through nationals, to be held at Stanford next week.)

Franklin has done more than add significantly to the US medal count. She has infected the team with her youth and irrepressible enthusiasm. "She's unbelievable," said Phelps. "I kind of remember myself like that, full of energy all the time. She's always happy, enjoying everything, She's never tired. She's always swimming fast."

During the post-relay news conference, leadoff backstroker Natalie Coughlin said, "She's genuinely happy and excited to race, more so than any other swimmer on this team. All of us are trying to mimic that as much as possible. It's unbelievably refreshing to have her energy on the team."

As if on cue, Franklin joined her teammates on the dais and, when asked a question, started enthusing. She was so effusive in her appreciation of her experience in Shanghai that the gathered press started to giggle as she ticked off the marvels of the meet: "There are really no words to describe it," gushed Franklin when asked to sum up her feelings about the week. "I am so, so happy right now, I have never been this happy in my entire life. It has been such an incredible meet. Everything was run perfectly, the pool was incredible, the crowd was so energetic ... honestly I couldn't ask for anything better. I'm so thrilled right now."

"See what I mean?" said Coughlin.

But Franklin's happy-to-be-here attitude is girded by a deep belief in her abilities and training. "On the first day of the meet, she looked at me and said, 'I belong here,'" says Schmitz. "And I said, 'Yeah, you do.' For a kid 16 years old, and really any athlete, to finally believe they belong someplace, that does a lot for their confidence."

But don't expect that confidence to morph into anything like cockiness. "That's the best thing about Missy, she's not going to walk out of here and tell people that she won three gold medals," says Schmitz. "She's not going to tell people she's an American record-holder. I've never heard her tell somebody what she's done."

Now that the whole swimming world is watching her, she won't have to.