Home > Summer > Can Missy Franklin Catch Michael Phelps?

Can Missy Franklin Catch Michael Phelps?

Assuming Michael Phelps doesn’t race in Rio, he will end his Olympic career with 22 medals. His 18 golds will surely not be caught until I and everyone reading this are long gone, if ever. But it is possible that 22 medals could be caught by an athlete who starts young enough, wins young enough, and has as many opportunities to win a medal as swimmers have.

Enter Missy Franklin. The 17 year old won 5 medals in London (4 golds) and narrowly missed out on two others, placing 4th and 5th in her other two events. Franklin has one major disadvantage in the chase to 22: her program is limited to two strokes, the backstroke and the freestyle, thus limiting the total medals available. Of course, seeing how Ryan Lochte broke down under the challenge of swimming such a daunting program, perhaps it is best for Franklin to pick and choose her spots. Besides, if she keeps her same program that gives her a shot at 7 medals per Olympics.

Considering she finished 6th in the 100 freestyle by a long margin she may want to ditch that (then again, at the 2011 Worlds she swam the second fastest split in the 4×100 relay). She also swam the fastest freestyle leg of the medley relay at the 2011 Worlds. And though she finished 5th in London in the 200 free her relay split at the 2011 Worlds would have won the 200m gold medal there. There’s obviously a lot of difference between a relay split and individual race, but the talent for medals are there.

In 4 years, Franklin will be 21. I am confident in saying she will medal in both backstrokes, the medley relay and the 4×200 relay for sure. As for the other events, let’s investigate further:

Her 200m freestyle time of 1:55.82 was just .01 away from the Bronze medal, and she finished behind swimmers who will be 27 and 26 at the next Olympics, as well as teammate Allison Schmitt who will also be 26 but still a bigger medal threat than the other two. Franklin has gone up and down with her times in the 200, but her leadoff leg at the 2011 Worlds would have won silver in 2012. With the rest of the swimmers in the 2012 200m final all at least 4 years older than Franklin, a medal in 2016 seems assured.

The 100 is a bit dicier. Franklin finished 5th, but, because it was the 100, less than a second off the Olympic record set by Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. Her leg of the medley relay in 2011 would have won the gold in London, so she is of course no slouch. Only Tang Yi of China is Franklin’s near equal in age, but while I think Franklin very well could be a medal contender in 2016, the volatility of the 100 free leads me to leave her off just to be cautious.

The big key will be the 4×100 relay. The U.S. finished in 3rd in 2012, but while they will have to replace a couple key cogs including Jessica Hardy the US women have medaled in the 4×100 relay every year since they boycotted the 1980 Olympics, so I feel confident in giving her one there

Projecting 8 (and especially 12) years into the future is an incredibly difficult exercise. To help us, let’s look at the ages of the last few  medalists in each of Franklin’s 2012 events:

100m backstroke: 

2012: 17, 20, 27

2008: 25, 24, 25

2004: 21, 20, 21

2000: 16, 21, 23

1996: 15, 25, 24

Average medalist age: 21.6 years.

Franklin will be right in the sweet spot for a medal her next Olympics, and I think she will in 2020 as well as a 25 year old, especially given that the age of medalists is trending older in the last couple of Olympics, with only Franklin herself throwing off that curve a bit.

200m backstroke:

2012: 17, 22, 19

2008: 24, 25, 26

2004: 20, 18, 25, 22

2000: 16, 25, 22

1996: 21, 25, 18

Average medalist age: 20.935

Similar to the 100, Franklin should be primed to win another medal and possibly two. I am a bit concerned for her chances as the 2008 ages are the oldest and that is right in the middle of the swim era, with the rest being considerably lower. Also of note, in 2000 Romania’s Diana Mocanu won gold in both the 100 and 200 back at 16, and then was never seen again in the Olympics, so you never really can tell with these types of things but Franklin seems like the type of swimmer who won’t have that sort of thing happen to her.

100m freestyle:

2012: 21, 26, 19

2008: 24, 23, 25

2004: 20, 30, 21

2000: 27, 23, 27, 33

1996: 21, 22, 29

Average medalist age: 24.4

This year’s 100 free champ, Ranomi Kromowidjojo, didn’t even qualify for the final in 2008 as a 17 year old, while Franklin finished 5th as a 17 year old, so the future in this event seems very bright for her. I remarked after her sluggish swim in the final that maybe she should drop the race from her program in order to lighten her load, and she may end up doing it in 2020, but I think she will be all but assured a medal in Rio. She would be 25 at the 2020 games, seemingly right in the middle of the range of possibilities for a medal in the 100 free, but that curve is thrown off a bit by the incomparable Dara Torres and her bronze in Sydney.

200m freestyle

2012: 22, 22, 23

2008: 20, 20, 23

2004: 22, 16, 25

2000: 27, 24, 27

1996: 23, 18, 26

Average medalist age: 22.5

Of the 2012 medalists only bronze medalist Bronte Barratt even made the final in Beijing, so Franklin’s narrow miss (4th) bodes well for her at least in Rio, but as time has gone on the medalists ages have trended younger and younger, meaning Franklin may only get one shot at an individual medal in this event.

If Franklin can get 6 medals over the next two Olympics in her individual events (in 8 total chances, which is obviously tough but doable) that puts her at 11. Between the 4×100, 4×200 and medley relays, that will be 6 more medals (I feel confident in projecting the U.S. to at least medal in all of those). That gives Franklin 17 medals through 2020. She would be 29 in the 2024 games, and much more of a longshot for any individual medals. She could get three more relay medals to get her to 20 and if she can medal in both her backstroke events that would equal Phelps’s 22.

There is obviously a long way to go before Missy Franklin’s career is over. She does have the fact that she is on a better age track than Phelps going for her though. Phelps’s first Olympics when he was a real threat was at 19 years old, while Franklin’s came at 17. She at 25 will be a much better medal threat than Phelps at 27, and she should have a shot at some medals as a 29 year old. A lot of things will have to break right (just see any of Phelps’s wins in the 100 butterfly) and she will have to swim exceptionally well, but I do think that she will make it a lot closer than anyone is talking about right now.

Also of note: Jenny Thompson is the most decorated female swimmer ever with 12 medals, a feat Franklin will assuredly pass, and also has the most female golds with 8. Franklin is halfway to that total as a 17 year old.

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