RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In a hallway beneath the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, Missy Franklin was surrounded by the media after her first race of the Rio de Janeiro Games.
Until Katie Ledecky walked by.
At least half the reporters bolted away from Franklin while she was in mid-answer Monday, all of them eager to fire a few questions at Ledecky.
It was the clearest sign yet of the changing of the guard on the U.S. women’s swim team.
Franklin was the darling of the London Games, a high schooler who captured four gold medals and the hearts of everyone back home with her bubbly personality.
Ledecky won gold in her only London race — quite an accomplishment for a 15-year-old — but her triumph was dwarfed by Franklin’s long shadow.
Now, it’s Ledecky who is poised to be the biggest women’s star in Rio. The 19-year-old already has two medals and one world record, blowing away the field Sunday night in the 400-meter freestyle.
By the time Ledecky is done, she very well could have four golds and a silver, which would surpass Franklin’s medal haul (four golds and a bronze) in 2012.
Franklin seems to have accepted her fate.
“It’s so hard knowing all the work you put in everyday and then to get here and be so far behind where you feel like you can be,” she said, her eyes tearing up.
Franklin isn’t anywhere close to the form she showed four years ago.
She struggled mightily at the U.S. trials, qualifying for the team in only two individual events and one relay — a far cry from her seven-event program at the London Games.
Her first event of the Olympics gave scant evidence that she’s suddenly regained her speed over the past month. Franklin failed to qualify for the final of the 200-meter freestyle, finishing last in her semifinal heat and posting only the 13th-best time among 16 swimmers. She actually went slower in the evening than she did during the afternoon preliminaries.
Ledecky, on the other hand, cruised into the final as the second-fastest qualifier, with a time of 1 minute, 54.81 seconds — nearly 3 seconds faster than Franklin.
For Ledecky, this is already her third event of the games. For Franklin, it was the first chance to swim after sitting out the first two days.
She conceded that her confidence level is “really different” than it was before the London Games.
“It’s been awesome coming back here and just kind of accepting the expectations I have now, and knowing that’s just to do my best,” Franklin said.
Ledecky, of course, is aiming so much higher.
Nothing less than gold in any of her remaining events will do.
“I feel like every year at the big championship meets, my stroke just feels as good as it ever has,” she said. “Once I get going, it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .