Column: Tired of all that bad news in sports? Check out Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky

  • Article by: PAUL NEWBERRY , AP National Writer
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 12:00 PM
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Missy Franklin

Photo: Andy King, Associated Press file

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BARCELONA, Spain — The news from back home sounds so discouraging.

A-Rod and his cohorts awaiting their fate in another wretched doping scandal. A former MVP already benched for the baseball season after finally coming clean — well, sort of — to using pharmaceuticals that gave him an edge on the field. An NFL player sent off to sensitivity training after shouting a racial slur at a concert.

We all could use a reason to cheer.

Well, there are two of them at the world swimming championships.

Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.

By all accounts, these teenagers make good grades in school, mind their parents, eat their vegetables, say "yes sir" and "thank you" at all the right times, don't post ugly messages on social media, and aren't exactly in a mad dash to cash in on their athletic excellence, defying a world that screams out, "Get it while you can!"

They're a refreshing break amid a summer of scandal.

"How is everyone?" Franklin says to the assembled media at the beginning of each day, always with a big smile on her face. Just like that, any thoughts of Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun or Riley Cooper melt right away.

Franklin is 18, a recent high school graduate who'll head off in the fall to Cal. She hasn't decided what career she wants to pursue. Medicine is a possibility. She's interested in marine biology, too. And she's always wanted to become an elementary school teacher. But there's plenty of time to sort that out.

Ledecky is only 16, getting ready for her junior year of high school. She enjoys history, hanging out with friends or just watching the news with her mom, showing an increasing interest in all that's going on in the world. She's just starting to think about where she might want to go to college. Her most pressing priority at the moment is getting a driver's license when she gets home from Barcelona.

"I could've gotten my permit in December," Ledecky said. "But I kept saying, 'Ohh, I'll get it next week.' Then I'd have a swim meet the next week and I'd be resting up, and I didn't want to go out and get germs from the DMV or wait in line. I kept putting it off, so I just decided to get it after worlds."

Franklin is the more famous of the two, coming off her four gold medals at the London Olympics last summer.

But, as so often happens with athletes outside the major U.S. sports, that fame tends to wane until the next Summer Games. The folks back in America may not have even noticed — with pennant races and NFL training camps and all the aforementioned nastiness — that Franklin is on the cusp of an even greater performance at the biggest swim meet outside the Olympics.

She won golds in her first four events, a streak that finally ended Friday night when she finished fourth in the 100-meter freestyle. But she's still got two more events to go, and a good shot at winning them both. That would put her in some pretty rarified territory indeed. At the moment, Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz and Kristin Otto are the only swimmers to win six golds at either the Olympics or the world championships.

Franklin acknowledged being "a little bummed" about her first loss of the meet.

But she never stays down for long.

Just like that, Franklin got back to what passes for normal in her world — the ever-present smile, the perpetually bouncy personality, the unlimited sense of optimism. She always seems so dang upbeat that some international journalists have wondered, quite naturally, whether it's all just an act. Unless she's pulling an amazing con job, apparently that's just her.

Ledecky is more reserved than Franklin, but her confidence and poise has clearly grown since last summer, when she seemingly coming out of nowhere to capture an Olympic gold medal in the grueling 800 freestyle.

Her races in Barcelona have been even better. Ledecky broke the world record in the 1,500 freestyle by a whopping 6 seconds, landing a spot on ESPN's "Plays of the Day" with a little help from USA Swimming and their followers on Twitter. She nearly broke another record while winning the 400 free and, along with Franklin, helped the U.S. capture gold in the 800 free relay. Ledecky has one event left in Barcelona, the 800 free, and she's a big favorite to take home another gold — and maybe another record.

But Ledecky seems to be taking it all in stride, like all these medals and records are no big deal.

Her coach, Bruce Gemmell, points to what happened after the Olympics.

"She went home, slept in her same room, mom was still making meals ... mom and dad were still driving her to practice and driving her to school," Gemmell said. "I think the biggest change in her life in the past year was her brother went off to college. The rest of it was pretty much what she had been doing. There's a lot of benefit to that."

Franklin followed basically the same path after the Olympics. She went back to Colorado for her senior year of high school and lived, for the most part, like a normal kid rather than a four-time Olympic gold medalist. Sure, she walked some red carpets and got to meet Justin Bieber. But she also went on retreats with his classmates, attended the prom, joined clubs, passed out cookies and hot chocolate during finals week, and competed on her school's swim team.

"It was a perfect, incredible senior year for me," she said.

If Franklin had turned pro after the London Olympics, she'd probably be a millionaire by now. But she and her parents felt there were more important things to life than just getting rich, and that plan sure seems to be working for them. Ditto for Ledecky, who plans on putting off adulthood as long as she can. For now, it's all about getting that driver's license.

Franklin put it best during an interview I did with her back in May, just days before she graduated.

"I think such a vital part growing up, such a huge thing for me, is staying normal," she said. "I didn't want to look back 10 years from now and wish I done my senior year of high school, wish I had gone to the prom, wish I had had experienced those things. Those experiences make us who we are."

See, the news isn't all bad.

You've just got to know where to look.

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