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.
She calls it “flipping the switch.”
In those minutes on the pool deck, leading up to her plunge into the water, you’re not so much watching a gladiator before battle as you’re seeing a study in multiple personalities. Her soft gaze hardens into a 50-meter stare; her white skin takes a subtle pink hue across the shoulders. She slides her reflective goggles over her eyes, shakes out her arms and legs, and takes a deep breath. She looks neither to her left nor to her right. In that moment, in her mind—as she looks vacantly across the water—she is claiming the lane, the event, the entire pool.
National Junior Team director Jack Roach has heard the teenager compared to another former prodigy, Phelps, who set his first world record at age 15 in 2001 and had swum in his first Olympics the previous year. Roach says the comparison is unfair—“I would never put that kind of pressure on Missy”—though he admits there is at least one similarity: When the two are preparing to race there is a raw confidence about them, as if will alone could carry them to victory. After Roach first saw Missy swim in Colorado a few years ago, he couldn’t get over how poised she was as she stepped up on the block. She had it—that is, the capacity to not simply win, but to mentally dominate her opponents. “She has the most remarkable ability to make each race the most important thing in her life,” Roach says. “It’s like nothing else exists. There’s a difference between someone that likes to win and someone that does not like to lose.”
At 6-foot-1, with an arm span of six feet, four inches, and size 13 feet, Missy’s stature gives her an advantage over most of her competitors. (Only eight American female swimmers in Olympic history have been at least Missy’s height.) But figuring out her stroke technique, which is perhaps her biggest asset, is next to impossible. Much the way a country might guard its nuclear arsenal, those around her are careful about how much information they give away about the way she swims. In a sport where tenths of a second can separate a gold medal from obscurity, divulging information that could potentially help a competitor is akin to professional suicide.
For four years, Missy has swum under watchful eyes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Although it’s generally accepted that few swimmers can hang with Missy when she’s in the middle of the pool (her incredibly efficient backstroke allows her to “catch” the water in her hands earlier than her opponents, and with each stroke she immediately propels herself forward without any delay), her takeoffs and turns are considered areas in which she could improve dramatically. “She’s growing into her body, and she has to figure out where all her limbs are,” says Russell Mark, a former aerospace engineer who now analyzes swim mechanics for USA Swimming. “That’s something that will only come as she gets more comfortable with herself.”
In the fall of 2009, Mark first filmed Missy’s backstroke when he visited Schmitz’s Stars team at a pool near Denver. Mark had always thought of swim strokes as a precise choreography of physiology and timing, like a human version of a Swiss watch. Seeing the then-14-year-old swim for the first time, he had an epiphany. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what I’ve dreamed about,’ ” Mark said. “It was just so—ideal.” When I asked what made her stroke stand out, he smiled. “Everything.” I couldn’t figure out if he was being coy. I pointed out that anyone with a good video camera could film one of Missy’s swims and view it frame by frame. Mark agreed, but, he said, “You’re still not going to see everything.”
He was right. Even poolside, I could only see the top half of her swim, and that was the least interesting part. I had to see it up close—and so I called Missy’s mother and challenged her daughter to a race.
One afternoon this past winter, I pulled on a blue Speedo for the first time in my life and met Missy at a pool in Lakewood. She arrived wearing a pair of green, purple, pink, and orange sneakers with “Missy” emblazoned on the tongue. So that I’d be certain that she’d actually race, I made the rules. She’d swim a 100-yard freestyle; I’d swim 50 yards. On top of that, we made a small wager: If I beat her and she won a gold medal at the Olympics, she’d publicly give me credit for her victory. If she won, a photo of me in the Speedo would appear in this magazine. Missy agreed. “I can’t wait to beat you,” she said.
She put on her Team USA suit, pulled on a white American flag cap with her name printed across the latex, and slid her goggles over her eyes. A photographer counted down to the start: three—two—one….
I dove from my block over lane number one and immediately knew I was going to belly flop. I raised my right knee to break the impact. As I hit the water, I caught a glimpse of Missy’s toes fluttering among the Alka-Seltzer bubbles from her wake. Then, like a drag racer off the starting line, she disappeared.
It took her less than 11.50 seconds to cover the first 25 yards, but I got another look at her as she came back at me on her second lap. As Missy passed me going in the opposite direction, her arms looked like elastic bands stretching into the water. Her hands cut through the surface and extended to where only I could see them. Her head was perfectly still; her mouth was pulled tight. Missy’s legs seemed impossibly long and powerful and led to her enormous fluttering feet—her father calls them “human flippers”—that were like streamers whipping through the pool. Perhaps, I wondered, this was how Mark felt when he first saw Missy. Her stroke and kick were so arresting, so strong, that I wanted to stop swimming, grab a camera, and photograph them. Then she was gone again. It didn’t matter because what I saw seemed almost too perfect. I reached the wall a few seconds later and made my only turn.
Missy made her second turn moments later, and I saw her charging toward me. The woosh-woosh-woosh of her arms was like an underwater tornado as we passed. She made her final turn as I started to flail in the water. I breathed to my left and could see her white cap, like a shark’s fin, hunting me down. I buried my face into the water just long enough to see her body pull even with mine—pebble-size bubbles exploded off her hands. Four yards left, three yards…. My vision blurred. I saw the wash of white water—her arms, her face, her legs. I let out a yelp, raised my body out of the water, and touched the wall. It was too late. Her time: 50.27 seconds. Mine: 52.05.
I looked at my teenage challenger. She seemed stunned that the race was so close—even if she swam twice as far as I had.
“I thought you had me,” she said.
I couldn’t think; my lungs burned. “I can’t—feel—my legs,” I gasped.
“That was a good race,” Missy said, completely sincere. She reached over the lane rope and shook my hand.
“I think—I’m going—to die.”
I dropped my arms over the rope to keep myself afloat. I tried to catch my breath. I felt sick to my stomach. Missy pulled her goggles up to her forehead. Then she laughed in my face.