SHANGHAI -- The entire American swim team gathered in the stands just behind the starting blocks Saturday night to cheer on the red, white and blue. Ricky Berens, winner of gold in the men's 800 free relay the night before, was among those sitting in the front row. With two laps to go in the women's 200 backstroke, he leapt to his feet. With one lap to go, everyone else joined in. Everyone started yelling, "Go, Missy!"
Go, she did.
Missy Franklin, the 16-year-old sensation, won the 200 back and in the process lowered the American record she had set the night before in qualifying, finishing in 2:05.10. Later in the evening, she anchored the U.S. women's medley relay team to its first victory at a world championships since 1998, in American-record time, 3:52.36.
On a night when Michael Phelps won his second gold of these championships in the 100 butterfly, timed in 50.71 seconds, even he was all too glad to applaud for Missy.
"She's unbelievable," Phelps said just moments after winning his own race. "She really has been able to come on the scene strong and I have said this all along: she's a stud."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, had observed earlier this week, "Missy is awesome. I think we'll remember [here] as when it all started. It reminds me of somebody I know."
The fact is, sports needs stars, and right now U.S. swimming arguably has four.
Phelps and, of course, Ryan Lochte, who has had a phenomenal 2011 worlds, with four golds -- so far -- and a world-record in the 200 individual medley. On the women's side, Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres.
The U.S. women's team features some first-rate swimmers -- Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer, for instance, who swam on the medley Saturday, were individual gold medalists at these championships as well.
But, regrettably, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name any female U.S. swimmer but Dara and Natalie, and Dara isn't here, the Americans having picked their team last summer, when Dara wasn't in swim mode.
It may not be right and it may not be fair. But that's the way it is.
All of which only underscores the Phelps phenomenon. Before Phelps, were swim races shown on the big screen at NFL games? Here, a Phelps ad for a sportswear company is all over Shanghai bus stops.
Let that sink in for just a moment. An ad using an American swim star to push sporting gear is all over Chinese bus stops.
And Coughlin, of course, appeared on "Dancing with the Stars."
Swimming needs such stars.
That's why Missy's emergence here is so promising.
Because if she does at the London Olympics what she did here, America is going to swoon for Missy.
By next summer, you'll learn all about how Missy has size-13 feet. She's 6-feet-1. She still has braces on her teeth. Her coaches call her "Missile."
This fall, she'll be a junior in high school. She couldn't be sweeter to talk to. She has unbelievable positive energy.
"You have to go in there and trust yourself and know that if you set your mind to something, you can do it," she had said Friday. "I'm just going to out and represent the U.S. and have a blast."
At that point, she had won a silver in the 400 relay; a bronze in the 50 back; and a gold in the 800 relay, with a 200 split, a 1:55.05 leadoff leg, that would have won the 200 free by more than half a second.
In Friday's 200 back semifinals, she went an American-record 2:05.90.
"… She didn't even know it was an American record. I looked at her after the race," said Elisabeth Beisel, who had placed third in the heat, "and said, 'You know that was an American record? And she said, 'What? No way!' "
In winning Saturday's final, Missy lowered the American record to 2:05.10.
The medley combination -- Coughlin, Soni, Vollmer, Franklin -- ended up only 17-hundredths back of the world record. In a race that over the past several years has not been an American strength, this combination beat the next-closest team, China, by more than three seconds. That's a wow.
"I just knew if I went out there and did my best that my team would be proud of me," Missy said afterward.
"She is barely 16 and so strong and she has the maturity to handle the pressure of swimming," Coughlin said. "I know many of us have spoken … about how special it is. She gets so excited. She's genuinely happy and excited to race, like more so than any other swimmer on this team. All of us are trying to, you know, mimic that as much as possible. It's unbelievably refreshing to have her energy on the team."
Vollmer said, "Like she said, we're mimicking her energy the best that we can. Having someone on the team that comes in and it's just like, 'Ooh, yes, it's prelims!' It's really awesome to have that."
Coughlin: "LIke yesterday, before the 100 free, she said, 'Are you guys excited? Were like, 'Yeah, yeah.' "
At the traditional winners' news conference, a reporter asked Missy, "You're one of the faces of these championships now -- can you sum up .. how you feel?"
If you want to start swooning now, it's okay. Everyone here is.
"There really are no words to describe it right now," she said.
"i am so so happy. I have never been this happy in my entire life. It has been such an incredible meet. Everything was run perfectly. The pool was incredible. The crowd was so energetic. I honestly couldn't ask for anything better. I am so thrilled right now."
Natalie Coughlin, sitting right next to Missy, said, "See what I mean?"