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Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, July 23. THE London Olympic Games will mark the second consecutive major international swimming competition that will feature an athlete personally affected by a mass shooting.
At last summer's world championships, Alexander Dale Oen stepped up for the final of the 100 breaststroke at the FINA world championships, just three days after his country was turned upside down by the horrific incidents that left 77 dead and hundreds more wounded in Norway. In that final, Dale Oen impressed the world with a groundbreaking gold-medal swim that brought a little respite for his compatriots from the grieving.
“I used the situation to try to make something good out of it,” Dale Oen told me on April 23 in what would turn out to be his final interview before his death on April 30. “If I do a good race, maybe 1 percent of the mourning people will feel more happy. As long as one or two people would feel better, then that would be good enough for me.”
Missy Franklin will need to have the same mindset as she races in the 400 free relay Saturday, her first event at the Olympics. Last Friday, a shooting at a movie theater in her hometown of Aurora, Colo., left a dozen dead. Even if she is avoiding any website or television broadcast that is covering the news of the shooting, it's undoubtedly occupying some part of her conscious mind. Media reports in the past few days have indicated that Franklin had no connection to the 12 dead, or to the many more wounded in the Friday morning attack, but it happened just miles from where she goes to school.
Like Dale Oen did last year, Franklin could be the catalyst to help her hometown heal. This random turn of events has shaken the small Denver suburb to such a degree that, now more than ever, they want Missy the Missile to give them a reason to cry tears of joy, not tears of sadness. Swimming fans all over the world have been on the edge of their seats, waiting for Franklin's long-awaited Olympic debut, but now that anticipation comes with the expectation that she can do for Colorado what Dale Oen did for Norway. An unfair expectation, but an understandable one.
This is a lot of pressure to put on a 17-year-old girl who smiles constantly — at least until it's time to race. It was a lot of pressure for Dale Oen — and he was 26 years old. Her personal coach, Todd Schmitz, is likely a strong presence in helping Franklin get into the focus of swimming in the biggest meet of her life. Luckily, Franklin also has an enormous support squad around her as she settles into the Olympic village. As shattered as I was upon hearing the news of the shooting, I would imagine Franklin's and Schmitz's emotions were more intense. And it's not easy to just tuck those emotions away and deal with them when she has the time.
But we've seen Franklin push aside any distractions and go about the business of swimming fast. And she really won't have to do much to help Aurora get past the grief. Just give us that Missy grin, and all is right with the world.