By Julian Linden
OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Missy Franklin, the rising star of the American swim team, is heading to her first Olympics, seemingly oblivious to the hype that awaits her and the weight of expectation she will lumber on her broad shoulders.
After qualifying for seven events in London during last week's U.S. Trials, the inevitable comparisons with Michael Phelps have begun.
It is a heavy burden that has sunk other American swimmers, but Franklin and her coach Todd Schmitz remain unfazed by what confronts them in London.
"Phase one of our plan is in the books," Schmitz said. "The Olympic Trials were an emotional roller coaster each day but I truly feel we will be relaxed in London because the work is done and now we get to enjoy it."
The 17-year-old swam at the last Olympic trials four years ago but did not make the team. She returned to her Colorado home determined to do better next time and has emerged faster and tougher than before.
"I definitely knew what I wanted, and for the past four years I have worked so hard," she said. "I didn't know if it was going to be possible but the fact that it's here and happening, it doesn't feel real, it's such a dream."
Franklin learned to swim when she was five. A big kid with huge feet that work like flippers, she was a natural and quickly stormed up the age group charts.
In 2010, she made her first senior national team for the Pan Pacific Championships but it was in 2011 that she showed why she has been marked for Olympic greatness.
At the world championships in Shanghai, she won five medals, including three golds, and the cast was set.
"If we do this right, Missy is going to be a figure like a Ryan (Lochte) or Natalie (Coughlin) or a Michael (Phelps)," said Teri McKeever, the head coach of the national women's team.
"Missy has the potential of being on multiple Olympic teams and helping the U.S. not just for the next month but hopefully the next generation of great swimmers."
Franklin passed her first big test with flying colours.
In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the U.S. Trials, she thrived, producing her best every time it mattered to qualify for the 100 and 200 meters freestyle, 100 and 200 meters backstroke, plus the three relays.
"She is amazing," said Gregg Troy, the head coach of the men's team. "She is a great racer.
"When she is in a close race, she knows how to get her hand on the wall, and those are real, real hard things to teach."
Franklin heads to London with the chance to become the first female swimmer to earn seven gold medals at a single Olympics. It was more than she expected but said the way she coped with it convinced her she could succeed in London.
"The goal coming in was to make the team. I could never have dreamed to do seven events," she said. "I surprised myself and I learned that if I just keep a positive mental attitude that I can go out there and do whatever I hope I can do."
The current record for a female swimmer is six golds, set by East Germany's Kristin Otto at Seoul in 1988, although it seems improbable Franklin will sweep the board, at least this time.
A more probable goal is to match or better team mate Natalie Coughlin's six medals from the Beijing Olympics, a record for an American female, in any sport, at a single Olympics.
Coughlin has been the face of the American swim team for the past decade and even she was left gushing by Franklin's performances.
The Californian also made the team for London but only as a relay swimmer, mostly because she was in a lot of the same events as Franklin and kept finishing behind her, but bore her no grudge, declaring "it's time for Missy."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)
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