Feature

Golden Girl

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.

 

June 2012

By August 2009, Missy was preparing for her 2012 Olympic run when Schmitz’s Stars team began to fall apart. Schmitz lost nearly a third of his team—about 65 swimmers—to a rival club started by his former boss, Nick Frasersmith. Frasersmith secured the Stars’ practice pool at Regis Jesuit High School and replaced Schmitz as coach of the school’s swim team. “Stars was not a happy place,” admits Schmitz, whose club now has to bounce from facility to facility for practices and sometimes uses five different pools a week.

People in the cloistered swimming world recognized the turmoil on the Stars team. “We were being asked, ‘Why the heck is she swimming in Colorado? She needs to come to Texas, or you need to move to California,’ ” Dick says. At one point, Missy’s father met with University of Texas coach Eddie Reese—who’d also been the U.S. Olympic men’s coach in 2004 and 2008—and went house hunting in Austin. Ultimately, though, the decision was his daughter’s. “She told us, ‘I’ll know if we need to go, but right now, everything is going well,’ ” Dick says. “In hindsight, that was a pretty mature decision.”

Missy made it clear that she’d control her future, and she had no problem going against her coach and her parents if she thought it was best for her. Shortly after Missy’s parents recommitted to Schmitz, her mother and her coach discussed the possibility of her trying to qualify for the Canadian Olympic team. (Both Dick and D.A. are Canadian, and Missy has dual citizenship.) Schmitz thought it would be easier for Missy to qualify for the lesser Canadian team—perhaps ensuring that she could swim in three or four Olympics—than it would be to climb into an American pool and compete for a spot against many of the world’s best swimmers. “It didn’t even cross my mind,” Missy says. “It wouldn’t have felt right swimming for anyone else. I wasn’t remotely close to considering that.”

Schmitz put Missy on a rigorous schedule that included two-a-days in which she’d swim up to 11,000 yards—nearly six-and-a-quarter miles—on some days. The coach and Missy’s parents entered her in the junior national championships. The decision to pursue a confidence-building meet initially put her family and Schmitz at odds with the U.S. national team coach at the time, Mark Schubert, who wanted Missy to swim against more decorated competitors and perhaps try out for the world championship team. Missy and her parents were steadfast, and the decision paid off. In 2010, she qualified for the 2011 world championships and USA Swimming named Missy its Breakout Performer of the Year. Last year, she followed that up with three world championship medals, two world records—in the 200-meter short-course backstroke, and as part of a 400-meter short-course medley relay team—and the women’s American record in the 200-meter long-course backstroke. For her successes in 2011, she was named both USA Swimming’s Female Athlete of the Year and one of two Fédération Internationale de Natation’s (FINA) World Swimmers of the Year (Ryan Lochte was the other). “She started hearing people tell her that she was going to be the next great star,” Schmitz says. “Bullshit. Her time is now.” By late summer 2011, Missy had qualified for eight individual events at the Omaha trials; she’s since added a ninth. Phelps and Lochte both have 11 qualifications.

If Missy was a rising star in swimming’s inner circle the past few years, she began to develop a national brand outside the sport this year. In February, she appeared in a Super Bowl advertisement for NBC, which owns the American rights to the games and sees her as one of its most marketable faces, and reporters from around the world showed up at her practices and on her doorstep.

Because Missy has maintained her amateur status—she wants to swim for a college team and is considering studying journalism—she’s prevented from cashing in on her newfound fame. Already, she has forfeited about $150,000 in prize money for her wins—not to mention perhaps millions of dollars that she could be earning in endorsements. Phelps, the sport’s highest-paid professional, earned up to $5.25 million in endorsement deals last year; Lochte is reported to have signed contracts in the past year that could earn him between $3 million and $4 million from the likes of Gatorade, Gillette, Speedo, and several other companies.

Adding to Missy’s pressures is that her parents have to pay their own travel and lodging expenses to watch their daughter compete—the total was more than $20,000 last year—and Missy’s mother took a one-year sabbatical from her medical practice to manage her daughter’s schedule. It’s a decision D.A. Franklin has struggled with at times, especially as the focus on her daughter has intensified. “I sometimes worry if I’m messing this up for her,” she says. This past winter, Missy told the Wall Street Journal that she was excited for a Vogue photo shoot later in the spring, a comment that got her mother a swift rebuke from the fashion magazine’s public relations department. “How was I supposed to know that you don’t mention that?” D.A. asked me. “If we were allowed to hire someone to manage her, all of this would be taken care of. Instead, it’s me, and I have to figure out where she needs to be, and who she needs to talk to, and how much time she can spend at this place or that place. I’m a mom; I’m not trained for this.”

In February, the three Franklins sat at the kitchen table and discussed Missy’s future. “We needed to tell her how much she was giving up by not becoming a professional,” Dick says. “The decision is totally with Missy, but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t at least put everything out there for her. If she has three, four, five companies that want to sign her, we could be talking about securing her financial future before she’s 20. We told her, ‘Honey, people work their entire lives and don’t make this kind of money.’ ” Missy listened patiently to her parents, then said she still planned to swim for a college team. “I’m not ready to turn pro,” she told me later. “I love my life, so why would I want to change that? Maybe sometime, but not now.”

Schmitz wants her to make an informed decision, no matter what it is. During a World Cup meet last year in Berlin, Schmitz says Missy banged her arm on a diving board and he worried that she’d broken it. Another time, she fell into a pothole in her school parking lot and nearly injured her leg. “Those are freak things that can end your career,” Schmitz says. “We’re talking about millions of dollars right now, but tomorrow, poof, that could be all gone.” Put another way, he says, Missy is the teenager lots of parents wish they had—an overachiever in school who’s polite and humble—and a marketing department’s dream. “She has the look, the talent, a 3.9 GPA, and she’s a great kid,” he says. “How many superstar athletes do you know who are genuinely concerned about doing well on their high school French final? Missy is. I can guarantee that Phelps and Lochte never gave a goddamn about a high school test.”

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