Throwback Thursday: When Missy Franklin Clocked a World Record Ahead of Its Time

Throwback Thursday: When Missy Franklin Clocked a World Record Ahead of Its Time

In this latest installment of “World Record Flashback,” a regular Swimming World series, we venture back to the 2012 Olympic Games. At the London Aquatics Centre, the United States’ Missy Franklin shredded the world record in the 200 meter backstroke, claiming the gold medal in what was one of the most dominant performances of the competition.

By the time Missy Franklin arrived in London, her identity as a leading figure in the sport was firmly established. She was no longer the youngster who made her international debut at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships. She was no longer the teen phenom who used the next year’s World Championships as her launching pad to global acclaim.

Rather, in the English capital, Franklin was accompanied by “favorite” status, the spotlight at maximum wattage. The 17-year-old’s multi-event talent attracted significant attention on its own merit. But the fact that Franklin possessed an effervescent personality and captivating smile made her storyline even more engaging—especially for the executives at NBC, who held the American TV rights.

Simply, Franklin was a can’t-miss athlete, in a similar realm to teammate Michael Phelps and Jamaican track star Usain Bolt. And over the course of eight days of action, Franklin flourished to the tune of four gold medals and a bronze. But it was her effort in the 200 backstroke, her pet event, that served as her tour-de-force moment.


missy franklin

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Before Franklin moved into the heaviest part of her schedule, she made her Olympic debut as part of the United States’ 400 freestyle relay. The event, held on Night One, offered Franklin the chance to get an initial feel for the water and rid herself of any first-time Olympic jitters.

With Australia favored for the gold medal, the United States coaching staff chose to go with Franklin on the leadoff leg. In that role, she could jumpstart Team USA and ensure the relay wasn’t facing an early deficit. Indeed, Franklin came through for her country, as her leadoff leg of 53.52 was the fastest of the field and proved critical in the Americans landing on the podium.

Over the next three legs, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal and Allison Schmitt performed admirably, helping the U.S. to an American record. Overall, the squad captured the bronze medal, as Australia won gold ahead of the Netherlands in the silver-medal position.

For Franklin, her week was underway.


Photo Courtesy: Cindi Dayton

Her first Olympic medal corralled, the third day of competition in London was long expected to provide Franklin with her biggest test. As she and Coach Todd Schmitz mapped out her potential Olympic program, there was an obvious scheduling conflict. The semifinals of the 200 freestyle were slated for just 15 minutes before the final of the 100 backstroke.

Although Franklin ranked among the premier freestylers in the world, her backstroke prowess was undeniably her No. 1 strength. Would contesting the 200 freestyle hinder Franklin’s chance at gold in the 100 back? If so, was it worth scrapping the freestyle to ensure optimal performance in the backstroke? These were questions Schmitz had to consider and discuss with his protégé. Ultimately, the duo opted to keep both events on Franklin’s program, trusting that her skill and preparation would make the double manageable.

On the evening of July 30, Franklin first stepped onto the starting blocks for the semifinals of the 200 freestyle. Behind a time of 1:57.57, she finished fourth in her heat, which proved enough to advance to the next evening’s final. As much as that qualification was satisfying, Franklin immediately had to shift her attention to the bigger affair of the session: the final of the 100 backstroke and her impending showdown with Australian Emily Seebohm.

Through the opening rounds of the 100 back, Seebohm looked sharp. She posted the fastest time in both the preliminaries and semifinals and was the only athlete to break the 59-second barrier. Meanwhile, Franklin was at least somewhat gassed from her earlier duty and needed to warm down as much as possible following her appearance in the 200 freestyle.

Enter creative thinking.

As the night’s program continued, an odd scene unfolded in the diving well adjacent to the competition pool. An individual was slowly churning through the water. Of course, it was Franklin. Recognizing that every minute was precious between the conclusion of the semifinals of the 200 free and start of the 100 backstroke, Team USA officials arranged for Franklin to utilize the diving area for recovery purposes.

Eventually, Franklin made her way to the starting blocks and the matchup with Seebohm. Down the first length, the Aussie took control, turning in 28.57. Franklin flipped in 28.82, and at the 75-meter mark, the U.S. star still had a significant gap to close. But with each stroke, Franklin cut into Seebohm’s advantage, and at the finish, it was the American who earned gold, her time of 58.33 ahead of the 58.68 by the Australian.

The triumph by Franklin was every bit Hollywood-esque. There was the short turnaround between her events. There was the imaginative use of the diving well. There was the come-from-behind aspect of the race. And…it was Franklin’s first Olympic gold medal!

“It’s indescribable,” Franklin said of becoming an Olympic champion. “I still can’t believe that happened. I don’t even know what to think. I saw my parents’ reaction on the screen, and I just started bawling.”



Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Following her victory in the 100 backstroke, Franklin remained busy. The night after being crowned an Olympic champion, Franklin finished fourth in the final of the 200 freestyle, missing the bronze medal by just 1-hundredth of a second. She then helped the United States to gold in the 800 freestyle relay before placing fifth in the final of the 100 freestyle.

On Night Seven, it was finally time for the final of the 200 backstroke. The previous summer at the World Championships in Shanghai, Franklin set an American record of 2:05.10 to win the gold medal. From that point forward, she was pegged as the woman to beat in the event, a pressurized situation for anyone—let alone a teenager.

But Franklin was undaunted by the lofty expectations and simply handled each race as it came. Seeded second heading into the final, behind fellow American Elizabeth Beisel, Franklin immediately took command. She shot to the front of the field on the opening lap, splitting 29.53, and touched at the midway point in 1:00.50, more than a second ahead of Great Britain’s Elizabeth Simmonds.

The back half of the race was a coronation for Franklin, who had a two-second lead at the 150-meter turn. At the wall, Franklin touched in 2:04.06 to destroy the world record of 2:04.81, set at the 2009 World Championships by Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry. The triumph gave Franklin a sweep of the backstroke disciplines, and with her gold medal from the final night’s 400 medley relay, she left London with four Olympic titles.

“It means so, so much to me,” Franklin said of her world record. “I think every young swimmer and athlete dreams of setting a world record, and for that to actually happen is unbelievable. I remember when I broke my first one in the 200-meter short course, Michael Phelps—he was there with me—and he said, ‘You know, your first one is your best.’ I was like, ‘Oh, don’t tell me that!’ But I think this one gave it a run for its money.”

Franklin’s global standard was ahead of its time. In addition to slicing almost a second off the previous record, Franklin’s time remained the world record until 2019. Even now, she ranks as the No. 3 performer in history!


There was an added element to Franklin’s Olympic run, and specifically her title in the 200 backstroke. While her parents, D.A. and Dick, were in attendance at the Aquatics Centre, a third family member was also in London. Dr. Cathy (C.J.) Campbell, D.A.’s sister and Missy’s aunt, was the team physician for the Canadian women’s soccer team.

When Franklin won gold in the 100 backstroke, Campbell watched her niece reach the pinnacle of her sport with the soccer team. More, Franklin stoked belief in the Canadian women that they, too, could win a medal. However, on the night of the 200 backstroke, a system had to be established to inform Campbell of the race’s outcome.

With Canada facing Great Britain in the quarterfinals, Campbell was focused on her role as team physician. Refusing to take her eyes off the field and the athletes she cared for, Campbell worked out signals with Jo Hutchison, a FIFA official, to relay how the final of the 200 backstroke unfolded. From the stands, Hutchison would flash one finger for gold, two fingers for silver or three for bronze. Other signals would account for records.

For a split second when an opening permitted, Campbell looked to Hutchison in the stands and saw one finger in the air, declaring another gold for Franklin. When Hutchison added a thumbs-up, Campbell knew the title arrived in world-record time. Tears filled Franklin’s aunt’s eyes as she proudly watched Canada duel with Great Britain and eventually garner a 2-0 win on the way to a bronze medal, Canada’s first medal in a Summer Games team sport since 1928.


This fall, Missy Franklin will receive her well-deserved induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. As her career is celebrated, many achievements will be recognized. Olympic crowns. World titles. Her positive influence on American teammates.

Surely, that night in London will rank high on the list.

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