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

Shortly after returning from Beijing in 2008, Phelps announced that the 2012 Olympics would be his last. The news foretold the end of a prolific career, and it left a massive hole in NBC’s future Olympic coverage (the company paid $4.4 billion for the U.S. media rights from 2014 to 2020). After three Olympic Games and 16 medals, Phelps had solidified himself as the major draw for American viewers. The night he won his eighth gold medal of the 2008 games, 31.1 million people tuned in—the most viewers NBC had on a Saturday night in nearly two decades. That he was photographed after the games taking a huge bong rip mattered little when it came to television viewership and advertising sales. Phelps defined the Olympic Games, and this year he would either be the hero taking his final victory lap in the pool or the swimming version of Icarus, whom people would watch if only to see how far he’d fallen. But while NBC could rely on Phelps’ lure in London, it lacked a new star who could be groomed as he eased into retirement: Both Lochte and Jamaican track star Usain Bolt would be in their early 30s by 2016—limiting their staying power for future Olympic Games—and gymnasts are notorious for their short-lived careers. For the broadcast company, Missy’s arrival was perfect.

Early this year, Phelps told me that he was happy to hand the torch to Missy. “She’s a stud. She’s the real deal,” Phelps said. “It’ll be cool to watch her career and watch her grow up. She’s good for Team USA, and she’s good for the sport.” During one meet, Phelps surprised Missy when he approached her in the warm-up pool and offered his help. “He just said, ‘I know what you’re going through, and if you need anything just call,’ ” Missy told me. “That’s kind of a career highlight right there. He knows about all the pressure that comes with this, and all the people who want a piece of you. Michael’s been in the exact position I’m in now.”

As part of her duties promoting NBC’s Olympic coverage, Missy traveled to Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood last year, where she was interviewed and then filmed—as she says—“dancing around like a dork” on a soundstage for a future Olympic ad. Less than a month before her 17th birthday on May 10, she visited New York City and appeared on NBC’s Today show; various producers and videographers had already been visiting Missy at her home and at school for months. “This kind of talent doesn’t come around often,” says Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medal winner who handles color commentary for NBC’s swimming broadcasts. “She could swim seven events [in the Olympics] this year—and she could medal in all of them—which is unheard of. She has the whole package, and she’s young.” I later told Schmitz what Gaines said about Missy’s chances at seven medals. “Rowdy Gaines needs to shut up,” he told me. “That’s fucked up.” Schmitz added later: “She hasn’t even made the team yet, so why put these expectations on her?”

Even without NBC’s constant gaze, Missy, her parents, and Schmitz were inundated with media requests—up to six a day by this past spring. The children’s network Nickelodeon had visited her at the pool, as did ESPN, and CNN had put in requests for her time. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published profiles. And for the past three years, Missy also had documentary filmmakers following her around the world, the result of Dick Franklin’s business connection to a producer’s mother. The film, titled Touch the Wall, will be released this coming winter.

Because of the attention, Missy’s parents rarely discuss the games with her. Missy doesn’t know her parents already have a flight booked, event tickets, and a hotel in London—and that other relatives are going, too. “We’d never tell Missy,” D.A. says. “She doesn’t need that on her.” Missy doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about her Olympic future. She’s only seen a few of the NBC commercials that feature her—she was doing homework when the Super Bowl spot ran (“My phone started blowing up”)—and she hasn’t read a story about herself in years. Of course, she told me, “I have an idea of what people are saying, but I can’t control what comes from someone else. All I can control is me and how I race. That’s what matters. I go to the pool because I love it, and it’s fun.”

This past January, as Missy’s Regis Jesuit team prepared to swim against rival Cherry Creek High School, at least five television crews—including NBC’s—showed up. It had become something of a novelty that an internationally accomplished swimmer chose to swim for her high school team in the middle of Olympic preparations, another decision that was strictly Missy’s. Regis’ small, indoor pool was so crowded that the meet was simulcast in the library so the overflow crowd could watch her. She won two individual events, was on one winning relay team, and her team narrowly defeated its rival. Afterward, her competitors lined up to offer hugs and to pose for photos. She was then escorted from the pool to a press conference in the school’s foyer. “This is crazy,” she told her high school’s girls athletic director.

A few weeks later—before Colorado’s high school swim championships in Fort Collins—ESPN3 announced it would broadcast the state meet live online, a decision that concerned her parents because of the added attention it would put on her. Ironically, Schmitz provided color commentary. Days before the meet, Missy pulled her coach aside and said she was worried that she might disappoint the people who would come to watch her. Schmitz relayed the concern to her mother. “It was the first time she’d ever mentioned disappointing someone else,” D.A. told me. Missy later learned that a parent from another school had written her mother asking why D.A. hadn’t suggested that Missy not compete against high schoolers. During the two-day meet—her team finished third overall—Missy set and re-set a national high school record in the 100-meter freestyle and was often mobbed by fellow competitors. At one point, a line of about 30 teenagers waited for a chance to meet her. Missy hugged each one while her parents watched from the stands.

“I’m getting overwhelmed,” D.A. told her husband.

“Someone needs to rescue her,” Dick said. As if on cue, a Regis coach pulled Missy from the throng.

“I wished I could have done something to stop that,” her mother lamented afterward. It wasn’t clear whether she meant the line of teenagers or the fact that her daughter participated in the meet in the first place. “It made me sad to think I couldn’t protect her.”

If the meet had put Missy’s parents on edge, the months before the Omaha trials had seen changes in both Missy and her coach. At a private training session before a March meet in Washington state, Missy thought Schmitz was being overly critical of her starts. She fired back that she hadn’t practiced them enough for him to complain. Schmitz worried that the constant media presence would begin to distract her. “Missy’s being put on a stage,” he told me. That cameras were beginning to show up more frequently at practices left him feeling as if he were presiding over a show. “I want our practice pool and our team to be a comfortable environment,” he told me. “I want her to feel like she can have a bad day.”

By spring, a wedge appeared to be forming between Missy’s parents and her coach. Dick said that Schmitz had been unresponsive to requests for Missy’s practice schedule—D.A. needs to know where her daughter is for mandatory drug testing—and that Schmitz hadn’t returned multiple emails. Dick intimated that he thought Schmitz might be frustrated at the attention his daughter and Regis Jesuit were receiving while Stars wasn’t getting any publicity. But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Since Missy’s ascent, Colorado Stars had lost several swimmers to rival clubs in the Denver area, in part because parents thought Schmitz hadn’t dedicated enough time coaching their children toward college scholarships. “There’s jealousy, and you get those outliers,” Schmitz said. “People don’t understand. People on my team don’t know why Missy gets so much attention.” A short time later, four-time Olympic silver medalist Kara Lynn Joyce—who’d moved from California last year specifically to train with Missy—reportedly clashed with Schmitz and left the team for a club in North Carolina. Schmitz said the decision was mutual.

“Very few people really, truly know what I go through,” he told me in April. “I have the best job in the world, but it doesn’t come without headaches.” Joyce’s departure had forced him to consider his future with Missy and her family. “Without a doubt, I’ve had a tremendous ride coaching Missy,” he told me. “Whatever happens, happens. I coach 130 kids a day, and she’s one of those 130. If I were doing this job only to be an Olympic coach, I would have never gotten into this profession.” I asked Dick Franklin if his family was nearing an end with Schmitz. “He’s done fabulous things with Missy from age seven to 16,” he said. “Todd and Missy will continue to ratchet it up [heading into the Olympics], and then there will be the World Cup, in Turkey, and maybe some grand prix events. He’ll coach Missy in the international circuit, but if she decides to go to college they’ll part ways.”

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