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.
The second night of the Austin Grand Prix in January was televised by the Universal Sports Network. For many swimming fans, it would be their first live look at Missy since the world championships in China six months earlier—the competition that solidified her place among the world’s elite swimmers. Before the Texas event went live, Gaines, the event’s color analyst, stood on the pool deck and remembered when he first saw then-12-year-old Missy at a swimming clinic in Colorado. The pair swam a 50-meter freestyle sprint against each other, and she won. “Missy blew me away,” Gaines laughed. He pointed to my notebook. “I talk big, but none of what I say about her is bullshit. I honestly believe we’re watching someone who people will be talking about generations from now.”
Hours later, Gaines was in the broadcast booth and Missy was stalking the warm-up pool a few dozen yards away. She took a pull from a fruit-flavored sports drink, then met briefly with Schmitz to go over plans for her 200-meter backstroke. Afterward, she made her way to a curtained-off room adjacent to the big pool. Nearly 2,000 people were in the stands.
Inside the prep room, Missy’s competitors were scattered about the floor, shaking their arms like whips, stretching their backs, loosening their hamstrings while scrolling through their iPod playlists. Each pretended not to notice the others. Missy stretched, then she looked around the room. A smile spread across her narrow face; her white teeth gleamed. At first, she swayed slightly from side to side. Then she started to bob her shoulders to a nonexistent beat. No one looked up. She nodded her head.
Missy and the seven other swimmers were called to the pool, and they marched, single file, to their lane assignments. Even before she reached block number four, it was obvious that she had flipped the switch. Missy had a vacant look about her, from the way her mouth hung open as she shook out her arms to her empty stare across the water. Her black swim cap made her appear even more menacing. She pulled her pink goggles over her eyes and stretched her legs.
Directly to Missy’s left—in lane number five—was one of her chief competitors: Laure Manaudou, the 25-year-old, three-time Olympic medalist from France, who’d come to Texas for redemption. Eight years earlier, her story had been remarkably similar to the one that Missy was now living. During the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Manaudou was a wunderkind, a 17-year-old whose abilities were celebrated across her country. At the Olympics, she won a gold, a silver, and a bronze—becoming the first Frenchwoman to earn an Olympic swimming championship.
In 2006, she broke an 18-year-old world record in the 400-meter freestyle and then won five medals at the world championships the following year. In France, she was feted the way a Hollywood starlet would be in the United States. Her life changed dramatically. “She was in the papers every day,” her coach told the New York Times just before the Austin meet. “Her life was scrutinized and she didn’t know how to handle that.” Manaudou changed coaches twice, then began dating a fellow Olympic swimmer. They broke up, and nude photos of her popped up on the Internet. By 2009, she had quit swimming. She began dating the three-time French Olympian Frédérick Bousquet and moved to the United States, where he was training. The two had a child in 2010 and Manaudou soon was back in the water with the idea that she could win a place on France’s 2012 Olympic team. Beating Missy here in Texas would help establish her comeback.
The Universal Sports cameraman focused on Missy. She stretched her legs as Manaudou looked straight ahead. At a sturdy 5 feet 11 inches, Manaudou appeared lithe standing next to the teenager.
Missy had set a simple goal for this particular swim: to make herself known from the beginning of the race and force the others to chase her. I can only control me, she silently repeated to herself.
An official called the women into the water and Missy jumped in, bobbing out like a rocket on takeoff. She grabbed the block’s metal handle and stretched backward like a rubber band. As the official called the swimmers to the ready position, she pulled herself forward—her back a perfect 90 degrees with the water. Sound was sucked from the pool. There was a ping, and the women were off.
The blanket of swimmers tucked into the water. At 25 meters, Missy had been unable to shake her competitors. “This is going to be a very interesting race,” the Universal Sports announcer told viewers. Manaudou matched Missy stroke for stroke, and heading into the first turn, she trailed Missy by only a few knuckles. Off the turn, Missy extended her lead. “Keep an eye on Franklin, this is a great test for her….” Missy’s hands slapped the water with the rhythmic tish-tish-tish of a water-torture device. Manaudou struggled to match the pace and found herself down more than a second after the first 100 meters. After the second turn, Missy exploded: She stretched her lead over Manaudou and soon she was a body length ahead of the entire group. She reached the wall again, and by the final turn, Missy had pushed the lead to two lengths. “Boy, look at Missy Franklin go!” Manaudou was fading while Missy was charging. “Missy Franklin, putting this field away….”
Manaudou fell from second to third place, then she dropped to fourth. Missy gave a final kick and touched the wall at 2:08:18—nearly three seconds ahead of her closest competitor. “That was a commanding swim….” Missy reached across the lane rope and hugged Manaudou, then she pulled herself out of the pool. She was gasping for air.
Missy was escorted toward an area a few yards off the pool where the Universal Sports folks could interview her. As she walked, she blinked hard several times, as if she were trying to flip the switch back to the other Missy. She turned her head toward the wall where I was standing. Her cheeks looked as if they had been rubbed pink, but the rest of her face was drained of its color. She saw me and smiled. And then she stuck out her tongue.