Four years ago, in Beijing, Natalie Coughlin became the first American female to swim her way to six gold medals in a single Olympics. Throughout the course of her career, she's won 11 medals. With one more, she'll have as many as the legendary Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.
Now, at the age of 29, she's about to embark on her third—and likely last—Olympic Games, and while she may not be able to repeat her heroics from four years ago, there's a new swimmer on her team who can.
Fortunately, Missy Franklin has Coughlin right there to guide her along the way.
During the Olympic Trials last month, Coughlin—who was the female version of Michael Phelps at the 2008 Games—barely qualified, according to the Sporting News. A few years ago, she was the swimmer to beat and garnered a gold medal, two silver and three bronze, but this year, her only chance for a medal will come in the 400-meter freestyle.
Missy Franklin, however, will have several chances to match Coughlin's performance from 2008. Franklin is this year's Natalie Coughlin.
The 17-year-old qualified for seven events at last month's trials, and if she's at her best in all of them, she has a chance to earn just as many medals as Coughlin earned in 2008. She can win more medals than Coughlin.
There are more parallels between Coughlin and Franklin. In 2008, Coughlin became the first woman to win the gold medal in the backstroke in two straight Olympics, and this year, Franklin—who swam the 200-meter backstroke in 2:06.12 at the trials, the fastest time in the world this year, according to Yahoo! Sports—could break the Olympic record time of 2:05:24.
Swimming in seven events is a lot to handle. Having the U.S. team's expectations on your shoulders presents the kind of pressure that could cave any 17-year-old. Luckily, there's someone on the team who's been there before, someone who can help Franklin navigate the abundant Olympic pressure.
People used to talk about how Coughlin was the female Michael Phelps, but now, they're talking about how Franklin compares just a little bit better. She is dominant in every facet of the sport. She doesn't have weaknesses. She is the swimmer who gives the women's team a chance of becoming the story of the 2012 Olympics.
Franklin's story isn't special just because she can become the first woman to swim in seven Olympic events. Her story is special because she's swimming for more than medals or personal glory; she's swimming for Aurora, Colorado, the town where she trains and goes to school, the town that was rocked last week by a gunman who killed 12 people and wounded 58 more during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises.
After the massacre, Franklin told the Agence France-Presse:
It was just so senseless and you have to wonder why these things happen in the world. Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do about it, I wish there was, but right now all I have to do is what I can do here and swim my heart out.
There aren't a lot of swimmers who receive the same kind of attention as a Michael Phelps or a Ryan Lochte. But Franklin is worth America's attention this summer.
She'll be one of the most worthy—and most deserving—Americans to root for, whether she ties Coughlin's record or not. And if she wins all of those medals for Aurora, her record-breaking performance will be that much sweeter.