AP National Writer
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Missy Franklin climbed to the top of the podium to collect a prize she really wanted.
That bid for eight gold medals?
It can wait.
Franklin held off hard-charging Federica Pellegrini to win the 200-meter freestyle on Wednesday night, the 18-year-old American claiming her third victory of the world championships and justifying the decision to cut back her program in Barcelona.
"We're coming down the mountain now," Franklin said.
She had been scheduled to swim two races in the evening session: the semifinals of the 50 backstroke, followed about 20 minutes later by the final of the 200 free.
But Franklin and her coach, Todd Schmitz, decided it was best to drop the non-Olympic event so she could focus on a race that's been the focus of so much work since she just missed a medal at the London Olympics.
Franklin finished fourth last summer -- a hundredth of a second off the podium.
This time, she was the one touching ahead of everyone else.
"We decided that maybe the risk kind of outdid the rewards," Franklin said. "I'm really happy with the decision to scratch and just do this."
Initially, with the 50 back added to the seven events she competed in at London, Franklin had a chance to match Michael Phelps as the only swimmers to win that many events at a major championship.
Phelps, of course, won eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
After a tough double on Tuesday and the 13th-best time in the morning preliminaries, Schmitz persuaded Franklin to scratch the 50 back, an event she swims mainly for fun though she did take bronze at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai.
"That will leave me with seven events," Franklin said.
Only seven, someone asked kiddingly.
"Just the seven," she replied, with a big laugh.
Schmitz said a lot of factors went into his decision, including the short break between races and the long walk from the warm-up pool -- set up under a tent outside the Palau Sant Jordi -- to the competition pool inside the arena.
"I really just felt the best decision for my athlete was to take her out of it," Schmitz said. "I've been her coach for 11 years. She knows when I make a decision, I try to have all the information I possibly can ... So I told her, 'I don't think this will benefit us.' And she said, 'OK.'"
France's Camille Muffat went out hard, leading after the first lap and 0.75 under the world-record pace. But Franklin edged ahead at the midway point and held off Pellegrini, the Italian world-record holder, to win in 1 minute, 54.81 seconds, a personal best.
Pellegrini claimed silver, 0.33 behind the winner, while Muffat settled for the bronze.
At the midway point of the swimming championships, Franklin still has four events to go. She'll be a big favorite in the 200 back, and there's a good shot at more gold on the two remaining relays. The 100 free presents her biggest challenge, though it would be foolish to put anything past Franklin.
She was fifth in that event at the Olympics, but has spent the past year working diligently to improve her freestyle stroke.
That was obvious Wednesday night.
"This is what we prepared for, this kind of event through eight days," Franklin said. "You kind of use each swim to motivate you for the next swim."
It was also a good night for South Africa, which claimed two gold medals.
Chad le Clos, best known for his upset win over Phelps at the Olympics, showed he's still the man to beat in the 200 butterfly. He went back and forth with Poland's Pawel Korzeniowski before turning it on the final lap to win in 1:54.32.
After conceding it was a bit nerve-racking to be looked at as the favorite, Le Clos hopped up on a lane rope, splashed water and pumped his fist. Korzeniowski held on for the silver in 1:55.01, while China's Wu Peng took the bronze at 1:55.09.
"I definitely think that this year I had more pressure. I remember feeling really relaxed last year," Le Clos said. "Just before they announced my name I started feeling the butterflies, shaking a little bit. I just wanted to get out here and control the race."
With Phelps retired, at least for now, the Americans were shut out of the medals. Tom Luchsinger was fifth and Tyler Clary seventh.
If Franklin and fellow American Katie Ledecky are the biggest stars on the women's side so far, China's Sun Yang is looking like he'll be remembered as the top male swimmer.