OMAHA, Neb. — Missy Franklin stood beside the blocks, staring down the still water in her lane. Never had she faced so much pressure, yet she felt serene.
A night after she failed to make the Olympic team in the 100-meter backstroke — an event she won four years ago in London — Franklin rallied to finish second in the 200 freestyle Wednesday night at the U.S. trials.
It was good enough to earn her a spot in an individual event in Rio.
"That’s probably the most proud race I’ve ever swam in my entire career, coming back from such a loss last night and telling myself that I still have it in me to do whatever I believe I can do," she said, tears glistening in her eyes.
Katie Ledecky cruised to victory in the race. Franklin was tied for second on the last turn and churned through the water to get her hand on the wall as runner-up.
"I told her after the race she’s one tough cookie," Ledecky said. "That 2 race is for real, and there’s more to come from her."
Up next are the 100 free on Thursday and the 200 backstroke on Friday, giving Franklin two more chances at further redemption. Four years ago, she took London by storm, winning five medals, including four golds, and spread her infectious smile and bubbly personality everywhere.
This time, just getting on the team has been a lot tougher.
Franklin left college after swimming two years at California to turn pro last year. She juggles sponsor commitments, photo shoots and travel in between training and practice. The extra demands away from the pool were more than she had expected, but it’s her nature not to want to let anyone down.
After struggling to seventh in the 100 back, Franklin returned to her hotel room and re-thought things.
"I realized that my job here is not to make an Olympic team, it’s not to defend anything, it’s to swim well," she said. "It’s me trying to work through how to deal with this kind of pressure that I’ve never really dealt with before and I think, as we just saw, I’m really starting to figure that out for myself."
Franklin had her work cut out in the 200 free final. Besides Ledecky, there was defending Olympic champion Allison Schmitt (fourth) and Leah Smith (third), who had already made the team.
Her coach, Todd Schmitz, pumped his fists and charged down the steps of the arena to congratulate his swimmer.
She finally had reason to flash her trademark smile.
"Last night was really tough and coming back from that, I was telling myself, `I’m not done fighting. I’m not done with believing in myself,’" she said.
For a while, it looked like Franklin might only make the team as a relay swimmer. That’s hardly what she spent the last four years working for.
"People say there’s nothing like making your first Olympic team, but there’s really nothing like making your second Olympic team," she said, laughing. "It’s moments like this that you kind of have to sit back and say, `You know what? I just did it.’"