Missy Franklin with gold medal in London. Photo by Richard Mackson, USA Today
LONDON (USA Today) - An hour after the medal ceremony, someone asked Missy Franklin where she was keeping her brand-new Olympic gold medal.
"In my pocket," she answered, pulling the medal out. "Isn't it pretty?"
Franklin flashed her signature smile and giggled. Reporters from all over the world who'd gathered to see the rising American swimming star couldn't help but chuckle, too.
Franklin's enthusiasm for the sport is obvious. After completing a daunting double - her 200-meter freestyle semifinal finished less than 15 minutes before her 100-meter backstroke final began - Franklin said she had "a lot of fun." Franklin won the 100 backstroke final in 59.12 seconds, good for her first gold medal of what many expect to be a long Olympic career.
While many are hailing her as the future of U.S. swimming and the female version of 17-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, it helps to remember the basics.
She's a 17-year-old from Denver who talks about how excited she is for her senior year of high school this fall. Franklin repeatedly says that she never puts too much pressure on herself during meets because she knows if she's smiling at the end of the day, her family and friends will be proud of her.
If that's the case, they must be very, very proud. That smile rarely leaves Franklin's face.
In fact, the only time Franklin wasn't grinning Monday night was when she stood on the podium during the medal ceremony.
She tried to sing along to the national anthem, but couldn't. She teared up and cried instead.
"I, like, forgot the words because I didn't know what I was doing," Franklin said. "I was just a huge mess. Just seeing the flag being raised was so incredibly unbelievable. I could never have dreamed of (a feeling) like that.
"All of the things I've gone through passed through my mind - just the early morning wakeups, the practices, the doubles, all the meets I've been to, all the friends that I've made. Just everything leading up to that point, and it was so unbelievably worth it."
It didn't take her long to get here, to these London Games. But in her mind, she's waited her whole life for a gold medal - so she can keep in her pocket if she wants.
"I finally got one," she said. "Finally - after 17 years."
That Franklin's gold-medal swim took place less so close to the 200 freestyle semifinal was perhaps the most memorable part of her win.
Between races, she recovered in the diving well. Her coach, Todd Schmitz, said FINA allowed her to do that to save time and energy.
Her double drew praise from the greatest swimmer in history - Phelps.
"Michael came up me in the warm-down pool and was awesome," Franklin said. "He gave me a huge high-five and told me, 'I can't believe you just did that. The most I had was 30 (minutes).' He had a big smile on his face.
"To have that coming from such a big role model of mine meant the world to me."
Even her coach wasn't sure of the wisdom behind trying this double.
"At the end of the day, it's her decision," Schmitz said. "So when I looked at her and I said, even at trials, 'Well, what do you think? ... She said, 'I know I can do it.' OK, say no more. I'm not going to question my athlete when she looks at me with a 100% straight face and says, 'I can do this.' "
Franklin barely qualified for the 200 free final, which will take place Tuesday night. She had the eighth-best time in the semis, which she spun as "perfect" because she was trying to use her legs as little as possible.
Those legs are going to require a lot more laps this week. In addition to the 200 free, Franklin still has the 200 back and 100 free, as well as two more relays. She'll also swim another double Thursday night.
But if anyone can survive a busy schedule and keep a smile on her face, it's Franklin. And since she likes the feeling of winning medals, she might just have to keep doing that.
America better get used to that smile.
"I couldn't be happier right now," Franklin said. "I still feel like someone needs to pinch me."
By Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY