In a hallway beneath the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, Missy Franklin was surrounded by the media after her first race of the Rio de Janeiro Games.
Until Katie Ledecky walked by.
At least half the reporters bolted away from Franklin while she was in mid-answer Monday, all of them eager to fire a few questions at Ledecky.
It was the clearest sign yet of the changing of the guard on the U.S. women’s swim team.
Franklin was the darling of the London Games, a high schooler who captured four gold medals and the hearts of everyone back home with her bubbly personality.
Ledecky won gold in her only London race – quite an accomplishment for a 15-year-old – but her triumph was dwarfed by Franklin’s long shadow.
Now, it’s Ledecky who is poised to be the biggest women’s star in Rio. The 19-year-old already has two medals and one world record, blowing away the field Sunday night in the 400-meter freestyle.
By the time Ledecky is done, she very well could have four golds and a silver, which would surpass Franklin’s medal haul (four golds and a bronze) in 2012.
Franklin seems to have accepted her fate.
“I really just want to do well, more for my team than anything else,” she said. “I think if I go out there and do my best, my whole team is going to know that. They mean the world to me, so I want to make them proud. I’m really focusing on making sure I’m doing everything I can to be the best I can be right now.”
Her best at the moment isn’t anywhere close to the form she showed four years ago.
Franklin struggled mightily at the U.S. trials, qualifying for the team in only two individual events and one relay – a far cry from her seven-event program at the London Games.
Her first race of the Olympics gave scant evidence that she’s suddenly regained her speed over the past month. Franklin managed only the 12th-best time in the 200 freestyle during afternoon preliminaries, and it looks as though it will be a struggle just to get past the evening semifinals, with only the top eight advancing to the final.
The leading qualifier? Ledecky, of course, with a time of 1 minute, 55.01 seconds – more than 2 seconds faster than Franklin.
For Ledecky, this is already her third event of the games. For Franklin, it was the first chance to swim after sitting out the first two days.
“The first race of any meet is always tough,” Franklin said. “I’m so not used to waiting until Day 3 to swim. To get out there, it felt so good to just kind of get in the water and race again. I was really happy with my time, honestly. That’s the fastest I’ve been in prelims in a while.
“The thing is,” she went on, acknowledging her new reality, “everyone else really brought it. too. So, if anything, I think the past couple of days we’ve seen how fast prelims have been. So I’m really going to have to bring my game tonight for semifinals.”
Franklin conceded that her confidence level is “really different” than it was before the London Games.
But she’s still smiling.
“It’s been awesome coming back here and just kind of accepting the expectations I have now, and knowing that’s just to do my best,” Franklin said.
Ledecky, of course, is aiming so much higher.
Nothing less than gold in any of her remaining events will do.
“I feel like every year at the big championship meets, my stroke just feels as good as it ever has,” she said. “Once I get going, it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Reprinted with permission from the Associated Press