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Very few things in life are indisputable anymore (if they ever were). In fact, the number of items we all agree on is down to four or five—hatred of traffic, love of Netflix, the quest for good Wi-Fi and the need for all news about Beyoncé. And while the value of the Olympics has never been more often debated, on one aspect the consensus is rock solid: America needs a sweetheart, and America will have a sweetheart.
Every four years some female athlete emerges from the five-ring circus with that mushy yet lucrative title that no other culture seems to bestow. It still evokes a giggle from the 2012 edition, self-described "dorky, goofy" swimmer Missy Franklin. "I get a kick out of it," she says, "but it's something I appreciate and take really seriously. Because along with America's Sweetheart comes that responsibility of being the athlete that parents want their kids to look up to."
Franklin's anointing had less to do with the four gold medals she won in London than the manner with which she won them. Like her 2012 co-sweetheart, gymnast Gabby Douglas—and skater Dorothy Hamill in 1976, gymnast Mary Lou Retton in 1984 and swimmer Janet Evans in '88—the 21-year-old Franklin cloaks her competitive force in a persona so smiley, so enthusiastic ("I'm awesome! How are you?") that it seems almost impossible.
Yet cynics have spent years hammering her candy-coated shell without making a dent. University of California head coach Teri McKeever once summed up Franklin's worldview as "rainbows and unicorns," and that was after seeing her tunnel through a back injury, the Golden Bears' 2015 NCAA championship run and the questionable decision to turn pro after two seasons at Cal. "Missy's not putting on," says Jon Urbanchek, special assistant coach for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, before the question is even asked. "She is a ... a ... bubbly. She loves to hug people; I see her and it's always a big hug. She's just a friendly, outgoing person. Everything you see about her is real."
So it is that awestruck fans don't just want Franklin's signature; they need to tell her they love her. "There's some connection there that I've never witnessed [before]," McKeever says. "It blows me away. I don't get it, to be honest."
Maybe that connection—and even the need for a "sweetheart"—reveals a popular yearning for champions untainted by PEDs, corruption or money. Or maybe Franklin's appeal is far simpler. "She's always happy," says teammate Katie Ledecky.
That can't be true, of course, for the same reason that America's Sweetheart never serves back-to-back terms. Bodies wear down. Rainbows fade. Franklin's reign as U.S. chlorine queen, culminating in a record six gold medals at the 2013 world championships, lasted but a year or two. Then, two days before the opening of the '14 Pan Pacific championships, in Australia, back spasms left her crying on the floor of a team van. Franklin still competed and won four medals. Only one was gold.
"The hardest five days of my life," she says. "Until that point, I had never been behind the blocks or in the final ready room and not felt prepared. That's the worst feeling you could have in a meet—worse than going out and having a disappointing race. It's horrible.
"Being there, and still having to swim every event and knowing that I was going to be in pain—and on top of that knowing that I wasn't going to be close to the times I wanted—was heart-wrenching. But I gained so much mental strength from pushing through and showing myself what I was made of. Until that, everything had been going up and up and up in my career."
The glitter has been flaking off her tiara ever since. Franklin, the defending Olympic champion in the 100 and 200 backstroke—in the latter she set the still-standing world record of 2:04.06—finished second in the 200 back and fifth in the 100 in last year's world championships and won gold in only two relays. By then she had reunited with coach Todd Schmitz, and she began a training program that, by this spring, had her declaring herself to be in the best shape of her career. Before the trials four weeks ago she said she could "taste" her old speed coming back. "There's nothing more I could've done to be more prepared," Franklin said. "Now it's the fun part."
It was anything but. Franklin, who swam seven events in London, began the trials in Omaha with a shocking seventh-place finish in the 100 backstroke, failed to qualify for the 100 final and the 4 × 100 relay and finished second in her onetime signature event, the 200 backstroke, more than three seconds off her world-record time. The only sign of "the old Missy" came in the final of the 200 free, in which she unleashed a second-half surge to finish in 1:56.18, second behind Ledecky's 1:54.88, and earned a spot on the U.S. team in the 200 freestyle and 4 × 200 relay. As they hugged in the water after the 200 free, Ledecky told Franklin, "You are one tough cookie."
Who would know better? Franklin's painful 2014 Pan Pacs, after all, also heralded Ledecky's arrival as the new power in U.S. swimming. Shrugging off blustery conditions at the outdoor meet on Australia's Gold Coast, the 19-year-old from Bethesda, Md., set world records in the 400- and 1,500-meter free, enduring mind-bending muscle pain to crush the latter by nearly six seconds. Ledecky also set the meet record in the 200 free and came back less than an hour later to nearly set a world record in the 800 free—in a sleet storm.
"Once-in-a-generation greatness," Ledecky's coach, Bruce Gemmell, called that performance. "Forty-five degrees and sleeting, and after that race [legendary Australian coach] Denis Cotterell came up to me and said, 'Give her the bloody world record! It's snowing out here!'"
Though Ledecky had also made a stunning debut at the 2012 Olympics, at age 15, her hard-eyed vibe felt nothing like Franklin's cheery gush. Met with an opening question about doping in her gold medal press conference, the surprise 800 winner issued a steely denial—"It's totally false"—worthy of a White House mouthpiece. Ledecky is curious, upbeat and unaffected, and like Franklin she leans heavily on her faith. But you see more of the shark in her grin. "She can smile at you," Urbanchek says, "and kick your ass."
Indeed, if Franklin is the latest in a line of Olympic princesses, Ledecky follows the likes of Mary T. Meagher and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, grinding Amazons who never had the limelight shined upon them. Aside from the Nancy Kerrigan—Tonya Harding soap opera of 1994, which took the good-evil divide to extremes, U.S. audiences seem to like a mix of both. Never mind that so reductive a formula never applies to male Olympians and ignores the obvious: Where it counts, Franklin has more in common with Ledecky than just about anyone else in the world.
"Oh, yeah," Ledecky says. "When she hits the water, she gets into her racing mode. That's what's so amazing: Missy can have all that energy and fun with the sport, and you see that outside the pool. But then she's able to flip the switch and swim really fast and win all these medals. It's really neat to see that."
Lacking Franklin's dimensions—6' 2", size-13 feet—and demeanor, Ledecky takes longer to flip the switch; fans following her quest for gold in the 200, 400, 800 and 4x200-meter free relay in Rio can expect postheat interviews full of un-bubbly self-criticism. During one April practice session Ledecky reeled off a set of 10 short-course 300s all in the 2:42 to 2:43 range. "There's not a girl on the planet who could approach that," Gemmell says. Still, the coach couldn't resist chiding her afterward with a text pointing out what he caller her "B-minus" results on a recent sleep profile. (Ledecky had been up past 11 p.m. watching the NHL playoffs.) "Yeah I know," she texted back without protest, "got to do better at that." And she has.
Over the last four years Ledecky has extended her dominance in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles to the 400, and is moving into the 200, too. Once, Franklin was a rising power in the 200 free, the lead leg of the U.S.'s world champion relay team in 2011 and the individual world champ in '13. But Ledecky got a full grip on that distance—swimming the anchor leg on the gold-medal-winning 4 × 200 relay and adding wins in the 1,500-, 800- and 400-meter free—at the '15 world championships, and last January she recorded what is now the seventh-fastest 200 time (1:54.43) in history. Dramatic as it was, Franklin's finish in Omaha last month is only the 12th fastest in '16.
Still, Franklin is one of two U.S. women to win four golds at an Olympics (Amy Van Dyken is the other, in 1996) and the only woman to win 11 world championships. You'd think an all-time great would be put out by any encroachment on her turf. But Franklin has been calling Ledecky her "favorite swimmer to watch, ever" for years now. She insists she has felt no resentment—says it has been "fun," in fact—watching Ledecky run her down and beat everyone else in the pool.
"To have that kind of competitor and that kind of influence in my life, as a person and an athlete? I'm truly so, so grateful for that," Franklin says. "I know Katie's going to make me better, so why would I ever want to push that away? Getting to race against her is incredible: It's such a challenge every single time, and a challenge that I warmly welcome. I'm going to go after it. She's going to put up a fight every single time, and I'm going to put up a fight with her."
If you can't believe that such generosity exists among the world's elite athletes, Ledecky does. During her epic run at the 2015 world championships, she attempted an unprecedented double—the 1,500 final and the 200 semifinal with only a 29-minute break in between. After breaking her own world record in the first, Ledecky mounted the blocks on shaking legs for the second. Her arms gave out. She marked her progress by Franklin's bright orange suit one lane over, figuring that if she could only keep up, she'd have a chance to make the final.
Franklin finished first in 1:56.37, Ledecky third in 1:56.76. After they touched the wall, Ledecky swam over to Franklin, who rubbed her shoulders, hugged her and said, "Great job.... God, I don't know how you did that."
"I don't know if I made it," Ledecky said.
Then they turned and watched their times appear on the scoreboard: Ledecky would, indeed, join Franklin in the 200 final. The next evening she reeled in Franklin just before the final turn and won in 1:55.16. Franklin finished third.
"We do our own thing, we have our own goals, and we just respect that and cheer each other on," Ledecky says. "It was nice to have Missy right there. She's had so many of those doubles; she knew what I was going through, and I've learned a lot just seeing how she handles those situations. And her positive energy rubs off on anybody she's around."
Four years ago that infectious jolt helped create a surreal team-building tool. The making of a cutesy video of U.S. swimmers lip-syncing the earworm "Call Me Maybe"—first suggested by butterflyer Kathleen Hersey, abetted by backstroker Natalie Coughlin—broke down so many barriers that vets such as Michael Phelps still credit it for the striking unity that produced 31 medals in London. And Franklin organized and pushed it hardest.
"She set the tone for the whole team," says the 80-year-old Urbanchek, a veteran of nine Olympic Games. "That memory, I'm going to take it to the grave because I've never had a more joyful Olympics. And there were other girls involved, but I picture Missy. That was one hundred percent Missy."
Replicating that this summer figures to be impossible, if only because nothing could feel as fresh as the original. "I'm going to have a different place on this team," Franklin said after the trials, "and it's going to be a different Olympics for me." She knows: Results rule. Only the best set the tone. It's Katie Ledecky's time now, and she isn't going to Rio for the fun of it.