THERE WASN'T a more fearsome foursome in London's Aquatics Centre. Heading into the final women's swimming event of the Olympics last Saturday, the members of the U.S. 4 × 100-meter medley-relay team had won a combined 12 medals, including eight golds, and set three world records in the first seven days of the Games. Their time in the ready room, traditionally a chamber thick with intensity and frayed nerves, was a last opportunity to radiate terrifying calm and stare daggers into the backs of opponents.
So there stood backstroker Missy Franklin, breaststroker Rebecca Soni, butterflyer Dana Vollmer and freestyler Allison Schmitt moments before the race—hugging and smiling.
For Franklin, at 17 the youngest of the four and the sole Olympic rookie, the only way to approach a race is with joy and camaraderie. All week, as she competed 15 times in seven events, she had given the ready room the vibe of a sleepover party, with the rest of the aquatic world as her guests. Before the 200-meter backstroke final, she and 19-year-old teammate Elizabeth Beisel calmed each other by laughing at themselves on TV and daydreaming about the McDonald's meals they'd indulge in when the meet ended. (One rival swimmer remarked, "We didn't have such great fun on the Russian team.") After she broke the world record for her second individual gold medal (Beisel took bronze), one of Franklin's first comments to the media was, "I had the time of my life out there."
Franklin finds fun in whatever she does, which is just one facet of her expansive charm. Tall (6'1"), gracious and photogenic, with a warm smile and a mass of auburn hair she often piles atop her head in a towering bun, Franklin became the first female U.S. swimmer to take on seven events in a single Olympics. She would leave London with four gold medals, one bronze and two near misses—she came in fifth in the 100 freestyle and missed third in the 200 free by .01 of a second—as well as world records in the 200 backstroke (2:04.06) and the medley relay (3:52.05). It was arguably the greatest Olympic performance ever by an American female swimmer (Natalie Coughlin won a record six medals in Beijing, but only one was gold), and it was unquestionably the most impressive Olympic debut by a U.S. swimmer of either gender not named Phelps.
IT WASN'T easy to grab the spotlight in a week when Michael Phelps was taking his final laps in an Olympic pool. But it was impossible to ignore Franklin and the rest of the U.S. women, who won eight gold medals (14 total) and set four world records. It was the highest medal count for the U.S. women since 1984, when many of the best swimmers in the world stayed home because of the Soviet boycott. "The energy has gotten better every night, each session," said the 24-year-old Vollmer, who set the team's winning tone with a world record in the 100 butterfly (55.98 seconds) on the second day of competition. "It has been incredible to watch the young ones step up."
The youngest was 15-year-old Katie Ledecky, a high school sophomore from Bethesda, Md., who set a withering pace in the 800 freestyle and touched first in one of the biggest surprises of the meet. Her time of 8:14.63 broke the oldest American record on the books, Janet Evans's 1989 mark of 8:16.22. "She is unbelievable," said Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington, the world-record holder and defending Olympic champion, who came in third. "I definitely think she'll break my world record [8:14.10] at some point."
The win was also a surprise to Ledecky, who started thinking about making the Olympic team only last September. "I didn't really expect gold," she said, "but I'll take it."
One more swimmer who exceeded her own expectations was the 22-year-old Schmitt, another 6'1" redhead who loves to laugh. She took a year off from her psychology studies at Georgia to train with Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, at the North Baltimore Aquatics Club. Phelps provided technical tips and advice on managing her energy. Schmitt provided comic relief in practice. "They're like brother and sister," says Bowman. "They tease each other all the time."
In London, Schmitt was hoping to improve on her Beijing performance (a bronze in the 4 × 200 free relay), but she never imagined her final medal haul: three golds, a silver and a bronze. In the 200 free, her only individual-race gold, Schmitt dominated from the start, winning in a U.S. record of 1:53.61, almost two seconds ahead of France's Camille Muffat. "Honestly," said Schmitt, "I feel like I smiled through the whole race."
FUN WAS a theme all week for Team USA, which created a video spoof of Carly Rae Jepsen's song "Call Me Maybe" on the way to London and posted it on YouTube on the eve of the Olympics as a kind of calling card. (It has had almost five million views.) Even Phelps shed his Terminator facade after he came in fourth in his first event, the 400 IM, well behind teammate Ryan Lochte. As he opened up more to the media and his teammates, he seemed to swim better, his unexpected silver in the 200 butterfly notwithstanding. "Once we started with that clunker in the IM, we thought we might as well have some fun," said Bowman.