Missy Franklin likes texting, dancing in her basement, and having sleepovers with her friends from Regis Jesuit High School. She also happens to be the best female swimmer in the world and is poised to take home multiple medals from the London Olympic Games this summer. Meet the new face of American athletics.
This article was listed as a notable work in Best American Sports Writing 2013.
On a cool January night, more than a dozen preteen girls crowded a staircase above a hallway that led to the Olympic-size pool inside the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus. The girls were clutching T-shirts and swim caps and black markers as they prepared to swarm a 16-year-old swimming prodigy named Melissa Franklin. The high-schooler, who lives in Centennial, Colorado, had just finished her second day at the Austin Grand Prix, one of several warm-up meets that preceded the early summer Olympic qualifying events in Omaha, Nebraska, where Franklin hoped to become one of the youngest members of the United States Olympic swim team bound for London.
Among the grand prix headliners was Michael Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the sport’s wealthiest and most prominent athletes. There was Ryan Lochte, a two-time Olympian and seven-time college champion; there was the out-of-retirement Olympic veteran, Janet Evans; and there was Laure Manaudou, nicknamed the “French Mermaid,” whose most popular images can be found by removing the parental block in your Google search settings. The most anticipated of the group, though, was the Regis Jesuit High School junior who held two world records, three world titles, and wore a purity ring on her left hand. To her coach, she was “Miss”; to her father, “The Missile”; but to everyone else, she was “Missy,” as in: “Missy, can you sign my shirt?” or “Missy, can my daughter get a photo with you?” or “Missy, will you endorse our product?” Newspaper headlines from Boulder to Berlin had referred to her by her last name, and generally modified it with words like “record” or “gold medal” or “star.” But she was never simply a “swimmer,” because to call Missy Franklin that would be like saying Picasso was just a painter.
After the night’s events had ended and the 200 or so swimmers had packed up, the crush of girls placed themselves strategically along the staircase. It was 7:30. Phelps and Lochte would receive shrieks of excitement when the young crowd spotted them, but the loudest screams would surely be reserved for Missy, who...well, where was she?
“Excuse me!” a dark-haired girl called down to me. “Is Missy coming through here?” The girl perhaps thought I could see through the hallway to the pool, or maybe she mistook me for a media handler. I looked up to her, and I could see other young girls craning their necks and waiting for my answer. I shrugged my shoulders; their faces fell.
In fact, Missy was already tending to her fans who’d stuck around in the stands. She climbed atop some bleachers so she could see the children who lined up and patiently waited their turns to speak to her. Mothers thrust their little boys and girls at the wet-haired teenager, and she posed for photograph after photograph, never breaking her smile.
“My…camera’s…not working,” one mother said as she fiddled with her phone. “Wait…one—”
“That’s fine,” Missy said. “Take your time.”
“—second. Got it! Thank you so much, Missy. We love you!”
“Aww,” Missy said. “Thank you.”
After standing for nearly 20 minutes of photographs, she downed a sports drink, spent a half hour with a masseuse, then changed into a pair of sweatpants and a gray, hooded sweatshirt. It was almost 9 p.m. when Missy finally met up with her coach, a 33-year-old former Metropolitan State College of Denver swimmer named Todd Schmitz. He was urging her out the door. “C’mon, Miss!” The three of us were among the last people at the pool. “You’ve gotta eat,” Schmitz said. “Then we need to get you back to the hotel. You need to rest for tomorrow.” Missy mock-glared at her coach and turned to me. “Heeeeey!” she said. “I hope I haven’t kept you too long. It’s been such a hard day. So many good swimmers, you know? Soooo much fun. Where are we going?” She threw on a black coat, flipped the hood of her sweatshirt over her brunette hair, which was piled in a tight bun atop her head, and walked into the hallway. The staircase was empty.
We walked through the glass doors, strolled through the shadows on the UT campus, then hopped into Schmitz’s rental car and headed downtown to a dimly lit Italian restaurant. Missy found a table in a back room, sat down, and began pecking away at her phone. “Friends back home,” she said. “I really miss them.” She laughed at a text message. Schmitz rolled his eyes: “Miss, put down the phone.” Missy grabbed a breadstick. She laughed again.
“Hey, Missy? Missy?” Schmitz said.
“That’s it, Missy,” Schmitz said, pointing at the phone. “No laughing at your messages.”
Missy ignored her coach. Schmitz shook his head and looked at me: “Teenagers.”
In the months leading up to the Olympic trials, a typical week for Missy included classes at Regis Jesuit, one to two hours with a tutor, at least six swim practices, three hours with her personal trainer, and sometimes an interview or two with a reporter or a television producer. It’s a schedule that is nothing like that of most high school juniors, and yet ask anyone who knows Missy and they’ll tell you what a normal teenage girl she is—except when she dives into a pool. “I love working so hard for so little time,” Missy once told me. But all Olympic-level swimmers put in the hours and work hard. What separates the greatest from the merely great is more amorphous and intangible: the feel of water on skin, or how a swimmer adjusts to the minute changes in the pool, from a tenth-of-a-degree temperature change to the splashback along the pool gutters to the slipstream swimmers generate as they’re racing side by side.
I asked Missy’s mother, D.A. Franklin, if her daughter had shown premature ability in swimming. “From the moment Missy touched the water,” D.A told me over lunch with her husband, “it was like home for her. She was completely fearless.” D.A. tells a story of the time her then-two-year-old daughter darted after a fish while the two were snorkeling in Maui. D.A. couldn’t catch up and screamed. Her husband, Dick, leapt from a beach chair and jumped in. He raced out and grabbed their daughter about 30 feet into the ocean—in 12-foot-deep water. “I don’t think she needed to be rescued,” he said.
“But swimming isn’t what makes her special,” D.A. said. “Missy’s special because she’s unafraid to be herself, even when there’s pressure to maybe be someone she’s not.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, she’s a teenager, and teenagers do—stuff. She’s definitely not like everyone else.”
“She came up to us right before her 15th birthday and said, ‘I really want a purity ring,’ ” D.A. told me. “Missy said she didn’t want to have sex until she was married. I was so proud of her.”
D.A. and Dick believe their daughter is a miracle. The two had been married nearly 25 years and struggled with fertility issues when they had Missy, their only child. “It’s such a taboo subject, even now,” says D.A., who’s 62. “All of it was very trying.” Dick says the two probably weren’t ready for parenthood, anyway: A former college football player from Canada, he focused on his work and advanced to executive positions with 7UP, Coors Brewing Company, and Reebok; D.A. became a physician and worked as a physician consultant with the Colorado Department of Human Services in the Developmental Disabilities Division. “I didn’t have time for D.A., let alone a family,” says Dick, who’s 66 and cofounder and president of the Rocky Mountain division of Cleantech Open and works from the family’s two-story home. “When we finally had Missy, it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to enjoy this.’ We already had the BMW and Porsches and houses. Now we could sit down in a rocking chair and bring this kid up.”
Late last year, Missy’s high school class went on a three-day retreat to Colorado Springs, and parents were asked to write letters that their children would read privately. Her father hesitated before he wrote his note; he was unsure if he should put his feelings into writing. Eventually, he did. “I told Missy how much I loved her and that, unfortunately, I would only have half the time on this planet that most fathers would have with their daughters,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “But who she is—she’s made up all that time. You know, it’s a tradeoff, but this has been good for us.”
From an early age, Missy was big. A visit to the mall once earned D.A. a rebuke from a woman who was shocked that a kindergartner was still wearing diapers. Missy was two. When she turned five, Missy joined her neighborhood swim team and set a league record for girls six and younger in the 25-meter backstroke that still stands. In kindergarten, Missy drew a picture that included a stick figure with her childish rendering of the Olympic rings.
Missy won nearly all of her races as a nine-year-old and had already been on a nationally competitive club team—the Colorado Stars—for two years. It was there she met Schmitz, a Bismarck, North Dakota, native who has now coached her for nearly a decade. “Obviously, she was really good, but she only liked racing superfast,” says Schmitz, who once owned a lawn-mowing company (its motto: “You grow it, we mow it”) and now runs the Stars’ operation full-time. “She hadn’t realized that she needed to translate that motivation into practicing.” Of course, she was just a kid, but even so Missy soon learned the value of practice. By the time she was 11, she was paired with the Stars’ elite swimmers.
During Franklin’s first 400-meter relay with the teenagers that year, she was assigned to the anchor position—the last person of four into the water, and often the fastest swimmer in the group. That she’d been paired with three other teens meant that a fourth teenager was bumped from the group. The decision became a point of contention, though Missy was too young to understand. One by one, her teammates dove into the pool with a splash and cheers from the three remaining girls. Then it was Missy’s turn to swim. “She went in. The other girls walked away, like a protest,” D.A. remembers. After the race, Missy pulled herself out of the pool. No one was there to meet her. “It broke my heart,” D.A. says. “I had tears in my eyes—I was in pain—and told her I’d talk to someone and fix it. But she was mad at me. She said, ‘Stay out of it, Mom. It’ll be OK.’ ” Missy knew she had another race—the 100-meter freestyle—and that she’d get a chance to compete against the same girls who’d just ignored her. When she stepped onto the block for the event, D.A. saw her daughter’s stone-faced look. “I just knew,” she says. Missy won the race handily. “She had to prove herself,” her mother says. “She didn’t have any problems after that.”
By 2008, Missy had qualified for three events at the Olympic trials in Omaha—the last step before joining the U.S. Olympic team. At 13 years old, she was the second-youngest qualifier and the youngest swimmer to swim three events at the meet (Phelps raced in his first Olympic trials as a 14-year-old). Though Missy didn’t make the team—her best finish was 37th place in the 100-meter freestyle—she gained confidence. As her parents drove her home to Colorado, the teenager planned the next four years of her life. “From that moment,” Missy says, “it was all about making the 2012 Olympic team.”