BARCELONA -- With the passage of time, and granted it has only been five years, the magnitude of what Michael Phelps accomplished in Beijing in 2008 becomes ever more evident. He set out to win eight gold medals. Inside the howl of noise that was the Water Cube, he won eight gold medals.
Records are of course made to be broken. But one wonders whether that 8-for-8 will ever seriously be tested.
Missy Franklin had come to Barcelona with the idea of perhaps trying for eight golds. It takes nothing -- again, nothing -- away from her brilliance and sheer exuberance to say that she now, after winning the women's 200 freestyle Wednesday here at the Palau Sant Jordi can "only" win seven, assuming everything else here at the 2013 world championships breaks her way.
The choice, after all, was completely hers.
Franklin realized after a demanding double on Tuesday that her best chance at winning the 200 free Wednesday night was to scratch Wednesday out of the 50 backstroke.
Math works like this -- you can't get to seven without getting first to three, and Franklin made it three-for-three Wednesday night in 1:54.81.
More math: It was her first time ever under 1:55.
More still: last year in London, Franklin missed out on a medal in the 200 free by one-hundredth of a second. Absolutely, missing out weighed on her.
"That was really rough, not making the podium -- just for my team. I really wanted to be up there for them. It was a really tough swim. I learned a lot from it and I don't think I would be here now without that swim. And so to be here now, and to go 1:54 -- I'm so happy."
Federica Pellegrini of Italy, the world record-holder in the event, took second in 1:55.14.
Pellegrini, who has consistently had a knack for the peculiar, disclosed after the race that she had trained for these championships solely by swimming backstroke and that her coach had convinced her only at the last moment to do freestyle.
Camille Muffat of France took third, in 1:55.72.
It must be remembered that Franklin just turned 18 in May. She will enroll at Cal-Berkeley after these championships.
Last year in London -- even with the near miss in the 200 free -- she won four golds and a bronze.
The victory Wednesday lifts her career world championship gold total to six. She won three in Shanghai in 2011. Here in Barcelona she took part in the winning 4x100 free relay on Sunday; she won the 100 backstroke on Tuesday.
In an era when so many sports figures can be such downers, Missy Franklin is the complete opposite. She is relentlessly optimistic, hard-working, the ultimate team-player -- pretty much everything you'd want if you were saying, who would I want my middle-school son or daughter to model themselves after?
This is why longtime observers of the swim scene such as Rowdy Gaines, himself a 1984 swim gold medalist, can hardly contain themselves when it comes to Missy Franklin. Now an NBC analyst, Gaines has heard it all, seen it all. Three times after her 200 free victory, he posted exclamation-point laden tributes to her on his Twitter feed. The last: "I can't help myself….Missy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
It is an article of nearly religious faith among elite-level swimmers that swimming hurts. That's because, sincerely, it does. Most come into an interview and proclaim, ohmigosh, that swim hurt so bad. Missy Franklin never says that.
Here she was literally moments after her 200 win, talking about what it's like for her flipping at 100 meters:
"That's the hard part about a 200 -- it's when you really start to feel it. You have another 100 left. So you have to stay mentally tough. That's when you have to focus on your own swim. And as soon as you touch that wall, all that pain goes away because you know you tried your best, regardless of what the time is."
Franklin's strategy Wednesday was elegantly simple. The framework of the race, she said, was to stay even with Muffat in the first 100, then keep ahead in the final 100 of Pellegrini.
Even so, she said, the only sure path to victory was to swim her own race: "A lot of it was mental .. just being able to concentrate on my own race and not getting caught up in what other swimmers around me were doing."
Having learned from last year's near-miss, she and coach Todd Schmitz had focused on pace work. That, she said, paid off.
And, she said, after a demanding double on Tuesday -- winning the 100 back, then swimming the semis of the 200 free -- it all seemed maybe just a little too much of a push, particularly after Wednesday morning's prelims, in which she finished 13th of the 16 qualifiers in the 50 back, at 28.44, nearly a full second behind the fastest qualifier, China's Fu Yuanhui, 27.55. The semis of the 50 back went down literally just minutes before the final of the 200 free.
Franklin had won a bronze in the 50 back in Shanghai.
If Franklin was perhaps a contender in the 50 back, she is so much more a favorite in the 100 free and the 200 back. The 100 free heats get underway on Thursday; the 200 back heats on Friday. There are two more relays to come as well.
Asked at a news conference Wednesday whether it occurred to her just how "amazing" it was Phelps had gone 8-for-8, Franklin, as ever, laughed, and said, "Of course. I don't even need to do that [myself] to realize how amazing that was.
"Just swimming seven events, eight events, six events -- I mean, swimming that was incredible, let alone winning every single one of them. Not enough can be said about what Michael did in 2008. It was absolutely incredible and, you know, watching him become the most decorated Olympian of all time in London was also an unbelievable achievement.
"To be there to witness it was wonderful."
To win five medals in London -- that was pretty special, too, especially for a teenager. And three golds already in Barcelona, with more very likely to come -- someone alert Rowdy Gaines, because he is going to need more exclamation points before this week is done.