American swimmer Missy Franklin is only 17 years old, but she is already a superstar. Winning her third gold medal on Friday, and setting her first-ever world record in the process, raises an intriguing question for Franklin's future: Can she be the next Michael Phelps in U.S. swimming?
Franklin's time of two minutes, 4.06 seconds in the 200-meter backstroke final on Friday was the fastest-ever by a female swimmer in that event and proved that she is the world's best backstroker.
She will likely compete one more time on Saturday, as she is expected to be chosen to swim the backstroke leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay. Franklin’s list of accomplishments in London, however, is already unprecedented for a swimmer of her age.
No teenage swimmer has ever been as dominant while also as versatile as Franklin. Franklin has won two individual gold medals, in both the 100-meter backstroke and 200 back, while she also won gold as a member of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay team. She earned a bronze as well as a member of the 4x100 free relay team.
Franklin is likely to earn another medal, but even if she does not, her Games have been a huge success. With three golds and four overall medals, Franklin has won more golds than any other female swimmer at these Games and is tied with U.S. teammate Allison Schmitt and Australia’s Alicia Coutts for the most overall medals among females.
Imagine the possibilities
At only 17, the possibilities are certainly intriguing for how much Franklin could accomplish. While it is hard to compare any swimmer to Phelps, who increased his all-time records to 17 golds and 21 overall medals with his 100-meter butterfly win on Friday, Franklin has the potential to become the most decorated female swimmer in Olympic history.
Phelps was even younger than Franklin in his first Olympic Games, as he competed in the 2000 Games in Sydney at only 15 years old. Phelps, however, did not win his first medal until four years later, when he won six golds and eight overall medals at the 2004 Athens Games.
Expecting Franklin to match Phelps’ Athens achievements at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro would be expecting too much, but like Phelps, she could likely compete in at least three more Games before her career comes to an end. Also like him, she's capable of competing in many events each time.
Franklin already has a three-gold and four-medal lead on Phelps through her first Olympics, and those counts could potentially rise to four and five respectively on Saturday.
Even if Phelps’ record ends up being out of reach, the women’s record for most overall swimming medals is well within her reach. The current record is 12 overall medals, held in a three-way tie by three U.S. swimming legends: Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin. With four medals in one Olympics and maybe three Olympics to go, Franklin could surpass that trio.
Room for improvement
By winning both individual backstroke events in London and setting a world record in one, Franklin has already established herself as a dominant force in the backstroke. However, while she is already a major asset as a free relay swimmer, she must still improve on that stroke to earn Olympic medals in the individual freestyle events.
Franklin missed the medals in both individual freestyle races she entered. She was fifth in the 100 free and fourth in the 200 free. While these are very respectable results, they also show that she is not yet among the world’s greatest freestyle swimmers.
In four years, however, she could be. She is young enough that she actually still competes for her high school, leaving her an incredible amount of time and potential to improve in every event. The fact that she already swam a six-race program (which could possibly increase to seven races) in her first-ever Olympic Games, and medaled in four of them, is an incredible achievement for a 17-year-old.
It certainly appears that Franklin will be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come in Olympic swimming. As Phelps, the world’s all-time greatest swimmer, concludes his great career at the London Games, another legendary career may just be beginning for Franklin.
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Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.