Olympic gold-medal-winner Missy Franklin will compete in several high school swim meets this season, which begs the question: Is the Colorado teenager the greatest high school athlete of all time?
Sure, National Basketball Association stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James went from prom to the pros, but neither was a certified international star when they were still in high school. Michael Phelps was 15 when he went to his first Olympics, but he didn’t compete in high school after that. And Jim Thorpe played against college athletes in his late teens.
Franklin, a 17-year-old Regis Jesuit senior, has appeared on talk shows, in Vogue, and on nearly every sports channel in the world. She has a cameo in an upcoming movie, and her post-Olympic schedule has been packed with trips across the country. But for all the attention and the accolades, she’s always simply wanted to be one of the girls. She’s declined multiple opportunities to turn professional—Franklin signed this year to swim at the University of California-Berkeley—but her mother said the decision to compete for Regis Jesuit High School still was a difficult one. That’s in part because Franklin didn’t want to take the spotlight from her teammates.
Perhaps that is the most troubling part for her. Last season, every high school event in which she swam was a spectacle. The state championship meet, in Fort Collins, was televised on ESPN3 and Franklin was mobbed nearly every second she was on the deck. (I wrote about the moment as part of my profile on Franklin that ran this past summer.) After one meet, against Cherry Creek High School, Franklin’s competitors lined up for photographs with her.
And then there will be questions from parents on other teams. Even if Franklin is swimming on a limited schedule, is it fair for her to compete against teenagers whose abilities are far inferior to hers? That question was asked last swim season, and it hurt Franklin and her parents deeply. You can imagine the feelings, then, when she steps on the block at a high school meet now. Will any of the state’s top high school girls compete against Franklin at meets, or will her competition be relegated to those who want to tell their future children they once swam against a decorated Olympic athlete? It’s too early to know the answer to that question, but you can be certain of one thing: These will be the most-anticipated high school swim meets the world has seen.