Missy Franklin found herself in an unenviable place Monday night: Watching Katie Ledecky take center stage.
Ledecky qualified for Tuesday night's women's 200-meter freestyle final but Franklin failed to earn a berth, ending hopes for one of the best rivalry match-ups of these Olympics.
Ledecky, who plans to enroll at Stanford in the fall, advanced to the final with a time of 1:54.81, the second fastest of the semifinals behind only Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom. But Franklin, the former University of California-Berkeley star, was essentially a non-factor as she finished 13th with a time of 1:57.56. Ledecky had the fastest time in Monday afternoon’s heats at 1:55.01, while Franklin’s time of 1:57.12 was 12th best, foreshadowing her disappointing finish Monday night.
The face-off’s failure to materialize represents a passing of the torch from former phenom Franklin, who first competed in the 2008 Olympic trials as a 13-year-old, to Ledecky, who at just 19 is already considered by many to be the greatest women’s swimmer in the history of the sport.
Franklin finished a tantalizing one one-hundredth of a second short of the bronze in the 200 meter freestyle in the 2012 Games in London, with a time of 1:55.82. That fourth place finish was one of the rare disappointments of Franklin’s London Games, where she was the first female to qualify for seven Olympic events. She ultimately medaled in five, with her gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter backstroke, 4x100 meter medley relay and 4x200 meter freestyle relay matching the record four golds that Amy Van Dyken earned in the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Franklin spent two years swimming at Cal before turning professional. During her time as a Golden Bear, she was a four-time individual NCAA champion, winning the 200-yard freestyle in 2014 and 2015, and the 200-yard backstroke and individual medley in 2015.
Ledecky was a relative unknown in 2012 when she burst upon the world stage in London. She announced her presence with authority in her first-ever international final, winning the 800 meter freestyle with a time of 8:14.63, beating Janet Evans’s 23-year-old American record in one of the biggest upsets of the Games.
Since London, Ledecky has set 11 world records, winning all 12 of the individual international finals in which she has competed. As the current world record holder in the women’s 400, 800 and 1500 meter freestyle, Ledecky’s dominance is so complete that she raises the eyebrows of members of the U.S. men’s team, who she generally trains with.
“She swims like a guy,” Ryan Lochte, himself an 11-time Olympic medalist, told Sports Illustrated. “Her stroke, her mentality: She’s so strong in the water. I’ve never seen a female swimmer like that. She gets faster every time she gets in, and her times are becoming good for a guy. She’s beating me now, and I’m, like, ‘What is going on?’”
Ledecky set an Olympic record in the 400 meter freestyle heats on Sunday afternoon, beating the next closest swimmer, Great Britain’s Jazmin Carlin, by more than four seconds with a time of 3:58.71. In the final on Sunday night, she shaved more than two seconds off of that time, topping her own World Record with a time of 3:56.46
Ledecky already has a silver medal in this Games as well, anchoring an American 4x100 meter freestyle team that included Simone Manuel, Abbey Weitzeil and Dana Vollmer on Saturday. The Australians took the gold with a World Record time of 3:30.65
On August 11, Franklin will participate in her second of two events in Rio as she attempts to defend her Olympic title in the 200 meter backstroke, an event in which her time of 2:04.06 from London still stands as the world record. Heats for the women’s 800 meter freestyle are the same day, with Ledecky the prohibitive favorite to take the gold. The Olympics do not have a women’s 1500 meter freestyle event.
On paper, Cal versus Stanford represents one of college’s most spirited and storied rivalries, but the version involving Franklin and Ledecky enjoys a distinct lack of acrimony. The two joined forces in gold medal performances in the 4x200 meter freestyle relays in the 2013 World Championships, the 2013 and 2014 Pan-Pacific Championships, and the 2015 World Championships.
Franklin speaks of Ledecky in glowing terms.
"It's been such an honor to watch her," Franklin told Reuters before the Olympics. "I think she's capable of unbelievable things, doing things that no-one in this world has ever seen before. To be able to tell my kids one day or tell stories that 'hey, I was there when Katie Ledecky did this'. That is so cool for me ... hopefully I can push her the way she's pushed me similar to how we talk about Australia pushing the U.S."