- Last Updated: 1:41 PM, July 31, 2012
- Posted: 2:09 AM, July 31, 2012
LONDON — The first batch of lyrics came easily, but so did the first sigh, which interrupted Missy Franklin right as she reached the part about the twilight’s last gleaming. She picked them back up easily by the perilous fight, but suddenly you could see the smile twitching and her eyes blinking, and she needed to exhale.
The podium was purple. The warm-up suit was gray. The medal around her neck was gold. A rainbow of victory. Missy Franklin wanted to keep up with the words, the first time she’s ever sang them from the tallest stage in her sport. She tried. But by the time the bombs were bursting in air, it was too late.
“I wanted to sing,” she said, “but I started to cry at the same time. And then I forgot the words.”
Thirty-two years on, we remember Mike Eruzione as much for the way he sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” with gusto on a medal stand as we do for the goal he scored against the Russians two nights earlier.
This, after all, is the moment for which these athletes spend lifetimes training. They may not have to endure the squalor in which their predecessors lived during the days of shamateurism. But this is still the biggest payoff: a medal around the neck. An anthem blaring out of loudspeakers. A flag rising before them, positioned just a little bit higher than Australia’s and Japan’s.
With everyone back home watching.
We will watch Missy Franklin from here, you bet. She guaranteed that last night, her night, and these could well become her Olympics, even if she doesn’t take down a Phelpsian haul. We will remember how she climbed out of the pool after qualifying — barely — for the 200-meter freestyle then jumped back in for the 100 backstroke finals exactly 13 minutes later.
Later, no less a source than Michael Phelps would say, “I can’t believe she did that.”
And then, she was magnificent. One lane to her left, Australia’s Emily Seebohm was poised on the bar; all Seebohm had done in qualifying was set an Olympic record. Franklin is too young and too accomplished at 17 to know the symptoms and perils of pressure, but this was it. This was her moment.
“I’ve waited all my life for this,” she would say, realizing at once the sweet irony, adding, “all of 17 years.”
This already had been an intriguing meet: Phelps’ meltdown in the 400 IM Saturday; Ryan Lochte’s meltier meltdown anchoring the 4x100 Sunday. And then yesterday, in the wake of China’s Ye Shiwen’s blistering win Sunday in the women’s 400 IM — her final 50 meters clocked even faster than Lochte’s in the men’s race — raised eyebrows were given a voice from John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, who called Ye’s feat “flat out impossible.”
Here came Missy Franklin, out of tragedy-stricken Aurora, Colo., and Regis Jesuit High, skimming through the pool, keeping up with the Aussie stroke for stroke, off to a faster start than normal because she had to be. Here came Franklin, putting her 76-inch wingspan and size-13 feet to perfect use, reaching for the wall, finally touching it .35 ahead of Seebohm.
The smile came the moment she glanced at the scoreboard. It never left for even a second the rest of the night. Not even during the National Anthem. Especially not then.
“When you dream about something your whole life and you achieve it, you don’t understand what you just did,” she said immediately after the race, her words coming in a rush, giggly, girlie and, to borrow her favorite word — “awesome.”
“I just won an Olympic gold medal!” she squealed. “It’s exceeding expectations by a hundred million times!”
Yes. We will watch Missy Franklin from here. We are a cynical sporting lot, and with reason, and in many ways we need to watch her. She’s already turned down boatloads of cash in endorsements and prize money because — no kidding — she wanted to keep swimming at Regis and in college. She is having the time of her life, letting us ride shotgun.
Letting us stand beside her on a purple podium laughing, crying, sighing, rejoicing, forgetting the words when it all becomes too much. Having the time of our lives.