Franklin won gold by ignoring hype

“She just won,” Ryan Lochte deadpanned.

This monotone, exhausted and somewhat deflated three-word sentence is what amounted to play-by-play for Missy Franklin’s gold-medal winning and frankly somewhat unbelievable 100-meter backstroke swim — unbelievable because that swim came 14 minutes after she had just finished a 200-meter freestyle semifinal.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” Michael Phelps told her afterward, and he knows a little something about impossible doubles.

Franklin’s race had been going on behind us on TV as Lochte tried to explain how he failed to medal in the 200-meter freestyle, a day after being overtaken in the anchor leg of the 4×100 freestyle relay. And this moment perfectly sums up our screwed-up way of deciphering Olympic results in America.

Lochte has been disappointing, despite his dominating 400 IM performance, mostly because he’s not Phelps circa 2008. Franklin is a success because she lived up to our expectations. And who really cares about American swimmers Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman because they merely finished 1-2 in the 100 backstroke and gold and silver medals are so easy to come by, right?

Yes, the problem is ours in America. We love to crown potential — Lochte and gymnast Jordyn Wieber — calling them the next Phelps or America’s sweetheart and predicting their success. We love largesse, medals counts, bigger and more. What the Olympics demand, maybe more than any other sport, is a patient approach because, if we just wait, greatness always reveals itself. In big and small ways.

Day 3 at the Aquatics Center delivered just those kinds of Olympic tales, an ebullient 17-year-old girl giggling at the absurdity of “finally” winning a medal and a pair of friends hugging across lane lines in celebration of a common four-year goal mutually achieved.

“I finally got one,” Franklin was saying when the absurdity of that sentence seemed to land.

“Finally,” she repeated with a giggle, “after 17 years.”

There are certain things you can only do when you are young, that become harder and frankly absurd as you age. Nude beaches and staying out all night immediately spring to mind. And then there is what Franklin did Monday, which is a category all its own.

It was your typical dive in and swim 200 meters of freestyle in 1:57.57 then go to the dive well because you do not have time to reach the warm-down pool and get in as many laps as possible before 14 minutes later (13:58.50 by one reporter’s stopwatch) diving in to swim 100 meters of backstroke faster than anybody else in the world kind of night.

“Probably close to 30 minutes is my closest double,” Phelps said. “She showed a lot tonight. She is tough.”

For anybody who does not closely follow swimming, this warm-down talk probably seems a little silly. I mean how many of us actually stretch after exercising? I am lucky if I do not collapse onto the couch in the immediate aftermath. Franklin figures she usually swims 1,200 meters after a race. She got in 375 in a diving well, which has the added benefit of everybody watching.

“It was so much fun,” Franklin said. “I love doing back-to-back doubles like that.”

Franklin, too, had been expected to dominate this London Olympics, featured in Vogue and elsewhere and treated like a presumptive victor before any races had been swum. The key was Franklin never bought into this hype. As late as May, while in Austin for a meet, Franklin politely interrupted me when I asked about the Olympics. “If I qualify,” she said. “I have not qualified yet.” Maybe this is the result of being 17, or of having really great parents, or just how she is wired, but this has to play a role.

It is impossible to imagine Franklin or her coach calling it a “travesty” if she had failed to medal in the backstroke or to qualify in the 200 free (which she barely did by grabbing the eighth and final spot) like Wieber’s coaches did. Nor do I see her tweeting “the greatest athletes suffer the Hardest defeats before the biggest and best moments of your life … God has a plain for everyone” like Lochte.

This is not their fault. This is ours. We crowned them, not based on what they did but what they were hyped to be able to do by sponsors and agents and folks with agendas. They did not fail, as much as they fell short.

Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever, and Lochte is really good.

There is nothing wrong with being really good unless you have been sold as great, as better than the greatest, as the next Phelps or in Wieber’s case as America’s sweetheart. And we spend so much time focusing on them we watch real-deal achievement like Grevers and Thoman and Franklin and fail to appreciate what we see.

Of all the great moments at the pool so far in this Olympics, few match Grevers’ and Thoman’s hug and Grevers saying later how his gold-medal celebration became that much sweeter once he realized Thoman had taken silver.

This is worth hyping. So is Franklin.

There is something infectious about her, the smile, the attitude, the talk of still turning down millions because she wants to swim in college, the refreshing honesty of someone who is not at all scripted.

“I was trying to sing and crying at the same time and I forgot the words because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Franklin admitted of her emotions on the podium.

This is what we should crown — achievement not potential.