LONDON – We know how this "Female Phelps" label works. It's dangerous, like dropping an anvil on an Olympic backstroker.
We've learned our lesson with that tag. It buried one Olympian already, and those of us who were sensible vowed not to use it again. But along came Missy Franklin, with that 6-foot-1 length and strides that devour water by the metric ton.
"No," we said, shaking a finger. "Not again."
Then she showed us that prodigious youth and versatility – only 17 years old, and the first woman who will swim seven events in an Olympics.
"We can't," we said, our heads in our hands. "Not again."
Finally, she gave us a gold medal in only her third day as an Olympian, and did it without playing the dutiful female understudy to Sir Michael. And that gold came on the back end of a double swim – two events only 14 minutes apart. Which even impressed Phelps. Even he never did that.
[ Photos: Swimming phenom Missy Franklin ]
So here we are. Backed into the shallow end of the pool with nowhere to go. Looking at Missy Franklin and on the verge of going thermonuclear with the expectations. Franklin said her gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke "exceeds my expectation 100 billion times."
Enjoy that ratio while you can, kid.
The truth is, Franklin's Q-rating is about to skyrocket, right along with the size of her adoring and hopeful public. And that can be scary. Ask Katie Hoff. Remember Hoff – the last Olympian to wear the Female Phelps albatross? If you've forgotten, here's a refresher: first Olympics in 2004 at 15 years old … five Olympic events and three medals in Beijing at 19 … and now … not in London. People can blame it on whatever they want, but this is the cautionary tale of the Female Phelps curse.
We sat in Beijing and thought Hoff had three or maybe even four Olympics left in her. She was setting American and world records. She was versatile, qualifying for Beijing in five individual events. And, hell, she was even swimming laps in some of the same Baltimore pools where Phelps came of age. But something happened in Beijing. Numbers got in the way. Phelps gobbled up eight gold medals. Hoff got none. And we pounded that cruel ratio like we were sledge-hammering a peanut.
[ Related: Swimming's old guard displaced by pool's young guns ]
Four years later, Hoff struggled so mightily at the U.S. Olympic Trials that she missed these Games entirely – despite just having turned 23 years old. This should be her prime, and Hoff should be in London. But she's not, and you have to believe the crucible of the Female Phelps has something to do with it. So to use it again would be … well … barbaric.
But after Monday's gold medal – Franklin's second after winning bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay – you can almost hear someone stitching that sash around Franklin. And as unfair as it may be, she's only a few more medals away from leaving us no choice.
Particularly when in all of her 17-year-old bubbly-ness, makes you crack a smile with gold medal declarations like: "I finally got one. Finally, after 17 years."
If she's really that self-expectant, she'll fit right in.
The truth is, Franklin is a lot like Phelps. Physically, her length is going to offer her plenty of advantages as her swimming develops. Mentally, she already looks as comfortable in her own skin – not to mention confident – as many of the veterans that surround her. And like many of the greatest Olympic athletes, she's already shown a peek of stubbornness at a young age. When Phelps revealed before these Games that Franklin hadn't sought his advice – despite him leaving the door open for it – it said something.
Franklin played it off, saying she had already received ample good advice and bugging Phelps with questions wasn't necessary. But the truth is that most of the greatest athletes at some point eschewed advice from those whose footsteps they were expected to follow. And most of them did it at a young age, choosing to first see if they could find their way on their own terms.
Franklin seems like that type. To this point, she has refused to belly-up to the endorsement table, insisting that she wants to swim in college – which can't happen if endorsement deals are inked. That means she has waved off nearly $100,000 in winnings from meets, and much more from sponsors. As she progressed as a youth, she resisted moving away from Colorado, despite her counterparts flocking to talent-rich swim clubs in Florida, California and Texas. Even her practice schedule is reputed to be a bit more conservative than what you would expect: 5,000-6,000 meters a day keeps the Olympic burnout away.
And maybe that's the twist. Maybe surviving the Female Phelps tag requires the ability to carry and reject the label at the same time. Accept the tag in talent, but reject it when individuality necessitates it. Like a careful dance – embrace it at an arm's length.
We saw that dance Monday night. While Franklin may not have bombarded Phelps with questions going into these Games, she took his advice when she was approached with her biggest obstacle. Somehow, Franklin had to swim just hard enough to qualify for the 200 freestyle final, but save enough energy to swim in the medal round of the 100 backstroke. And do the double with only an absurd 14 minutes between races. So Franklin and her coach reached out to Phelps, the guy who expertly weaved a tapestry of double swims en route to his eight golds in Beijing.
Phelps gave her his best advice before the 200-meter semifinal: "You're in the second heat, perfect set-up. Just judge what you have to do to make finals."
And Franklin nailed it, finishing .19 seconds ahead of the ninth-place qualifier, giving her the eighth and final spot in the 200 freestyle final. All while saving every last ounce of energy she could to win the 100-meter backstroke. In the nonsensical 14 minutes in between, she did a truncated warm down swim in the diving pool, in plain view of the capacity crowd at the aquatic center.
It looked familiar. It looked like you-know-who.
Maybe it's OK. Maybe we can just go ahead and say it. Missy Franklin looks like she's got the chops. She looks like she can be the female Michael Phelps. And as far as that label goes, she doesn't seem to care one way or another. And that's probably what makes her the perfect fit we've been looking for.
More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Swimmer Dana Vollmer puts demons of 2008 behind her en route to world record, gold medal
• Photos: Olympic Diving action
• U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte fails to medal in one of his marquee events