Missy Franklin and the Meaning of NCAAs... She couldn't have realized it at the time. She was rather immersed in the task at hand. Two and a half seconds back, her team a distant third, only her anchor leg to go... It was Friday night, day two of the Women's NCAA Championships, and Missy Franklin had a hell of a lot of ground to make up in the 800 freestyle relay. The race was down to the three best teams at the meet - Georgia, Stanford, and Cal. Already in the water for Stanford was freshman Lia Neal, Missy's fellow high school Olympic teammate back in London. In the water for the Bulldogs, sophomore stud Brittany MacLean, the girl who beat Missy head to head a night earlier in the 500 free.
She couldn't have realized it then, but this was a moment, perhaps the moment, that she will always return to when folks ask her why she went to college. This is what college swimming is all about, this is why Missy Franklin passed up millions for a few years of this priceless community of competition.
What happened next was what you'd expect from the current face of American swimming. She dove in and started reeling them in. 50 yards, just a second and a half back; 100 yards, less than a second; 150 yards five one-hundredths back; and then Georgia's MacLean dug in. She wasn't letting Franklin by that easy. Stroke for stroke over the final lap, until Missy managed to inch by, touching the wall first for her Cal Bears by .15. Her split: an astonishing 1:40.08.
Another golden feather in the cap for the golden girl... Did you expect anything less?
Actually, many probably expected more from Franklin at her NCAA debut. Her individual results: gold, silver, and bronze. Three events earlier on that Friday night, she torched the field in the 200 free, crushing the NCAA and American record by almost a full second. On the first night in the 500 free, she had to settle for a hard-fought second in the 500 behind MacLean. Both swimmers eclipsed the former NCAA record, held by Allison Schmitt, though it's worth noting that Katie Ledecky's American record of 4:28.71, set last month, is a good four seconds faster than that NCAA mark. Tonight in the 100 free, she rounded out her freshman campaign with a third behind Arizona's Margo Geer and Stanford's Lia Neal.
A fine and impressive showing, but then again, the girl collected more hardware at the Olympics. And then again, why didn't the best backstroker on earth swim any backstroke for her team? Safe to say the 100 and 200 back were fairly sure bets for Franklin. Why wouldn't Teri McKeever use her golden goose where she's at her best? Well, because this is a team competition, and it's all about the points. Cal was already stacked with backstrokers; the Bears needed her skills more in the freestyles. That's value and versatility - when you can pass on your two best events, and still be a touch away from winning your fourth or fifth or even sixth best events, because that's where your team needs you.
Missy's first NCAAs didn't end the way she'd envisioned when she first signed at Cal last year, when she glowed and gushed about being a part of a college team and leading the Golden Bears to another team title. This year they were no match for the all-around depth and excellence of Georgia. A crushing DQ in the 200 medley relay didn't help Cal's chances, but even without it, Georgia was in a class of its own this year. However, it's a safe bet that McKeever's girls did not expect their cross-bay Cardinal rivals to sweep past them the way they did. The Stanford women swam over their heads at this year's meet. Caps off to second year coach Greg Meehan and his crew for four relay victories and a surprising second place finish. Cal swam away with what must be a bittersweet third in the team race.
She didn't think it would be easy, did she? Of course not. At 19, she's as seasoned an elite competitor as any teenager you'll find, in any sport. Yet, everything has always seemed to turn out, well, just about perfect for Missy Franklin. The Olympics, the World Championships, the almost sickeningly well-adjusted home life... Stumbles from the script, that stuff happens to other swimmers. Don't you think she must be just slightly surprised right now?
And that too is why she went to college. To go through challenges not as a lone figure on the blocks wearing stars and stripes, but to embrace the collective challenge as a teammate, as a student-athlete.
Missy Franklin has had greater triumphs than a come-from-behind relay victory at NCAAs. She'll have greater triumphs to come. But years from now, ask her about her experience swimming at Cal. Ask her what she remembers most, what were her proudest moments?
She's going to mention that 800 free relay.