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.”