Missy Franklin falters in 100-meter backstroke, remains upbeat

Faces of American swimming changing at trials (2:13)

Wayne Drehs and Bonnie D. Ford recap Day 3 of the U.S. Olympic swim trials where new faces are making a splash in the men's and women's 100m backstroke and evaluate the performances of Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. (2:13)

OMAHA, Neb. -- Four years ago in London, a 17-year-old teenage girl from Colorado became America's swim darling with her infectious smile, bubbly personality and innate ability to touch the wall before any of her competition. Missy Franklin wasn't even old enough to vote when she won four golds and a bronze at her first Olympics. There was talk that she would be the one to fill the shoes of the then-retiring Michael Phelps and become the face of the sport. Nothing, seemingly, could stop her.

But now, less than six weeks from the Rio Games, the talk is coming in the form of questions about whether Franklin is somehow in danger of not making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team that will compete in August. The trademark smile is still there, only now it carries an entirely different purpose. No longer is it an involuntary release of the joy Franklin is feeling inside. Instead, the smile is there to remind everyone -- herself included -- that everything is OK. There's no need to panic.

Tuesday night, she might have needed the boost of positivity more than she has at any other point in the past three years after finishing seventh in the 100-meter backstroke -- the event in which she won her first gold in London. Her time of 1:00.24 was more than a second-and-a-half off her personal best in London, as she was one of only three competitors in the final who failed to break a minute. During interviews afterward, the smile was still there but her words hinted that this is all starting to become a bit much.

"I think I am feeling more pressure than I ever have before, but that's all part of the process is learning how to deal with it and learning how to move forward," Franklin said. "All I can do is the best I can do. I had a race strategy and I went out and I did it and it just wasn't good enough this time."

Franklin got off to a slow start in the race and found herself in eighth place at the halfway point, a full second behind Kathleen Baker, who eventually finished second to Olivia Smoliga. Falling behind is nothing new to Franklin, but this time the margin was too much. Afterward, her coach Todd Schmitz tried to find the positives, including the fact that her start looked better technically and had the third-fastest closing time.

"Is she disappointed? Of course she is," Schmitz said. "Anybody who says she's not isn't telling the truth. But being disappointed and using that to motivate you is different than being disappointed and just sulking around. On this pool deck, you see a lot of both. And you know what? It is what it is. We can't go back and swim them again. We just need to move on."

The 100 backstroke was on the back end of a challenging double that saw Franklin swim the event 23 minutes and 36 seconds after swimming in a semifinal of the 200 meter freestyle, where she finished fourth overall. But she had a similar double in London on the night she won gold, getting special permission to swim her warm down in the diving well.

Schmitz said after both races Tuesday night that he did not consider scratching to allow Franklin to focus on only one event. In fact, because she had struggled in the prelims and semis in the 100 back on full rest, he was hopeful that mixing it up might change things for the 21-year-old.

"When I woke up this morning, my first thought was we tried it twice being fresh, let's try it once with the two free under our belts and see what happens," Schmitz said.

What happened was stunning to anyone who hasn't paid attention to the sport since London, but hardly all that shocking to anyone else. Two years ago at the Pan Pacific Championships in Beijing, Franklin suffered crippling back spasms that left her unable to move for nearly 45 minutes. She managed to still compete and win four medals but only one gold. She hasn't been the same since.

After helping California win the NCAA championship in early 2015, she returned home to Colorado and the comforts of her mom, dad, Schmitz and her dryland trainer. But she hasn't been able to return to the form she showed in London or the following summer at the world championships in Barcelona. Franklin hasn't won an individual race at a major international meet since that meet. Nor has she swum a personal best since then. At worlds in Russia last summer, she finished seventh, third, second and fifth.

Why? Tuesday morning Franklin repeated the word "no" four times when asked if there were any lingering issues from her back injury. Some have wondered whether she has been burdened by the pressure and demands of turning professional and traveling the country for commercials and promotional appearances. But that's how swimmers make a living. And Schmitz traveled with Franklin for most of those professional appearances, putting her through training sessions at various local pools.

Whatever the explanation, there is still some room for optimism. Despite Franklin's gold in London, the 100 back is not her best event. That's the 200 back. Preliminaries for that event start Friday, with the final scheduled for Saturday, the last full day of competition at trials. But Schmitz is hoping that Franklin's Olympic chances don't come down to such a pressure-filled, do-or-die scenario. Before the 200 back, Franklin will swim in the 200 free final Wednesday night. She is seeded fourth. The top four finishers in the final are guaranteed a spot on the Olympic team, and there is a strong likelihood the top six finishers will be named to the team.

"Tomorrow night, the definite goal is we gotta see a 1 through 6 next to her name and punch that ticket," he said. "Obviously in an ideal world, we'd want it to be a 1 or a 2. The 'B' option would be 1 through 4, and the 'C' option 1 through 6. Whatever the case, tomorrow night the goal is to punch that ticket."

If and when that should happen, you can be sure there will be a smile -- the one so many remember from London.

"Right now I need to make the team in whatever way that looks like," Franklin said. "I need to make this team. And I'm going to do my best."