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Column by John Lohn, Swimming World senior writer
SHANGHAI, China, July 30. HOW appropriate that the schedule for the World Championships at the Oriental Sports Center's Indoor Stadium presented the women's 200 backstroke before the men's 100 butterfly on the penultimate night of action. No, organizers didn't plan the event order to provide an intriguing storyline. It just worked out that way.
In the sports journalism business, there's a tendency to tab athletes as the next (fill in the blank). When Kobe Bryant came along, he was the next Michael Jordan. On the ice, Sidney Crosby was the next Wayne Gretzky. The talk at this 14th edition of the World Champs is that American Missy Franklin can be the female version of Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte.
Resting for a complete day for the first time this week, Lochte gave way Franklin and Phelps to capture the headlines, and neither disappointed. The 16-year-old Franklin, suddenly the Next Big Thing in the sport, registered the third-fastest time in the history of the 200 backstroke, touching the wall in 2:05.10. An event later, Phelps bettered the field in the 100 butterfly behind an effort of 50.71.
For good measure, Franklin added a second gold medal as the anchor to the United States' 400 medley relay. Following Natalie Coughlin (backstroke), Rebecca Soni (breaststroke) and Dana Vollmer (butterfly), Franklin handled the freestyle leg and enabled the Americans to post a time of 3:52.36, the fastest ever in a textile suit.
"I made sure I came in here and left everything in the pool, and I did," Franklin said.
Entering the World Championships, Franklin was viewed as a future standout for the United States, an athlete to be relied on in a variety of events for the years to come. Leaving Shanghai, she's being viewed as a potential all-timer, such is the vast talent and multi-event range possessed by the Coloradan. She's had heads shaking throughout the meet, folks asking, "Did she just do that?" Oh, yes, she did.
Really, Franklin's meet started innocently enough, a 52.99 split on the silver-medal winning 400 free relay a head-turner, but not evoking the craziness quite yet. After she led off the triumphant 800 free relay in 1:55.06, however, the fever pitch amped up a few decibels. It got even louder as she thrashed the competition in the 200 back.
It might seem premature to declare Franklin to have Phelpsian or Lochte-esque potential, but that's how powerful she has been. With her talent, it's not unrealistic to suggest Franklin could race seven events in London – 100 and 200 freestyles, 100 and 200 backstrokes and all three relays. Next week, she's going to compete at the United States Nationals at Stanford University, which will provide a glimpse of where she stands in a few additional events.
Lost in the excellence of Lochte has been a strong showing by Phelps. While not in his Beijing form, Phelps has corralled six medals, including individual victories in both butterfly events. That's not bad for a guy who hasn't wholeheartedly dedicated himself to training. Given that Lochte has assumed the title of world's best swimmer – at least for the time being – look for Phelps to hunker down in preparation for London.
With 16 Olympic medals to his credit, including 14 gold, Phelps has long stated that the London Games will be his hurrah from the sport. He certainly has nothing left to prove and until someone wins more gold medals, he'll be the greatest Olympian in history. But Phelps isn't about to go out as the No. 2 man in the world. He wants to be the guy in Great Britain, and you can guarantee he'll do everything possible to make it happen.
"A lot of things are going to motivate me for next year," Phelps said. "There are a lot of things to improve before the London Olympics. It hasn't been the best year for me, but I'm going in the right direction and making progress."
So is Franklin, in rapid fashion.
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