With youthful joy, Franklin leads next generation of U.S. swimmers

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LONDON -- Missy Franklin does not giggle. Let's be clear about that. Because she's 17, and exuberant, and a girl, there is the tendency to portray her as giggly, but she's not. Missy Franklin laughs, a lot, but when she does, it is full-fledged and full-throated. These are not nervous giggles, they are I'm-having-a-great-time laughs.

"I had the time of my life out there," Franklin said after winning the 200-meter backstroke on Friday. That was true in more ways than one, as she won her third gold of these Games with a world record time of 2:04.06, a remarkable .75 faster than the mark set at the 2009 world championships by Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, who had the advantage of an ultra-fast body suit that is now banned. As Franklin sliced through the water on the final leg, some of her new fans on the U.S. men's basketball team, including Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, stood, applauded and pumped their arms for her. It seems like everyone has a good time when she swims.

But no one more than Franklin herself. She's lively and effervescent and exactly the kind of athlete that draws so many people, both hardcore sports fans and casual ones, to the Games. We have seen it on consecutive nights, first when 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas won the gold in the women's all-around on Thursday and now with Franklin: young athletes who appear to be refreshingly normal and unaffected, not jaded by fame or motivated by money, at least not yet. So many of the blue-chip football and basketball players their age, for instance, already have the entitled, world-weary attitudes of young pros. Franklin and Douglas are more like the neighborhood teenagers who happen to be extraordinary athletes, and that's why they charm America.

"My coach was saying that this is turning into the youth Olympics," Franklin said after her race. "There are so many young athletes who have come up and sort of announced themselves on the scene." And many of them have done it with a big, warm smile. Franklin's U.S. teammate, 19-year-old Elizabeth Beisel, who took the bronze in the 200, is another one, equally bubbly and upbeat. "We were definitely having fun before the race," Beisel said. "We were looking at ourselves on TV and I looked like a penguin. Then we were talking about McDonalds, because I've been wanting McDonald's so bad since we've been here, but I haven't had any yet. So Missy was just keeping things loose, saying 'Think about McDonalds.' But just her smile and laughter loosens you up."

In the post-race press conference, Beisel and Franklin were so infectiously happy that even silver medalist Anastasia Zueva of Russia was smiling as she listened to the Russian translation of their comments on headphones, especially when she heard them joke about how they kept the mood light in the ready room before the race. "We don't have such fun times in the Russian team," Zueva said, "but it's a great pleasure to watch them (the USA swimmers). They are fantastic, they're great."

Franklin, who's looking forward to returning to Aurora, Colo. for her senior year of high school after the Games, has great talent to go along with that great personality. She stopped laughing long enough -- "Maybe about 20 seconds before the race starts, that's when she really zones in," Beisel said -- to set a blistering pace at the start of the 200. "I don't think you can ever know," she said when asked if she realized she was on a world record pace. "But I knew I took it out hard because it really hurt after the first 25 meters."

She had enough left at the end to easily beat Zueva, who finished 1.86 seconds behind in 2:05.92 while Beisel finished in 2:06.55. Asked what it will take to beat Franklin, Beisel said, laughing, of course, "Apparently it's going to take a world record. Missy right now in the backstroke is unbeatable."

She is also extremely likable, which, along with her gold medals, could make her a great deal of money once the Games are over, but Franklin wants to maintain her amateur eligibility in order to swim in college, which gives her an even more admirable public image. She's also warm-hearted and sincere; she has dedicated her performance in the Games to the victims of the mass shooting in the Aurora movie theater recently. All this goodness even turns journalists mushy at times, and press conferences can turn into a series of questions that amount to, "Missy, why are you so awesome?" Says Beisel, "What can you say? She's a great person. She's totally real and genuine. I dare anybody not to like her."

At 17, and in no hurry to cash in on her fame, Franklin is likely to stay around for a while, long enough to be one of the leaders of a new generation of American swimmers. It was hard to miss the symbolism of her world record and 15-year-old Katie Ledecky's 800-meter freestyle win on Friday, on the same evening that Michael Phelps swam the last individual race of his career, winning gold in the 100 meter butterfly. The changing of the guard is happening. The kids are coming, and they're exactly the type we like for our Olympic heroes -- as full of fun as they are of talent. It's no wonder Missy Franklin laughs a lot. If you had her future -- not to mention her present -- you would, too.