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.”
In the months leading up to the Olympic trials, a typical week for Missy included classes at Regis Jesuit, one to two hours with a tutor, at least six swim practices, three hours with her personal trainer, and sometimes an interview or two with a reporter or a television producer. It’s a schedule that is nothing like that of most high school juniors, and yet ask anyone who knows Missy and they’ll tell you what a normal teenage girl she is—except when she dives into a pool. “I love working so hard for so little time,” Missy once told me. But all Olympic-level swimmers put in the hours and work hard. What separates the greatest from the merely great is more amorphous and intangible: the feel of water on skin, or how a swimmer adjusts to the minute changes in the pool, from a tenth-of-a-degree temperature change to the splashback along the pool gutters to the slipstream swimmers generate as they’re racing side by side.
I asked Missy’s mother, D.A. Franklin, if her daughter had shown premature ability in swimming. “From the moment Missy touched the water,” D.A told me over lunch with her husband, “it was like home for her. She was completely fearless.” D.A. tells a story of the time her then-two-year-old daughter darted after a fish while the two were snorkeling in Maui. D.A. couldn’t catch up and screamed. Her husband, Dick, leapt from a beach chair and jumped in. He raced out and grabbed their daughter about 30 feet into the ocean—in 12-foot-deep water. “I don’t think she needed to be rescued,” he said.
“But swimming isn’t what makes her special,” D.A. said. “Missy’s special because she’s unafraid to be herself, even when there’s pressure to maybe be someone she’s not.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, she’s a teenager, and teenagers do—stuff. She’s definitely not like everyone else.”
“She came up to us right before her 15th birthday and said, ‘I really want a purity ring,’ ” D.A. told me. “Missy said she didn’t want to have sex until she was married. I was so proud of her.”
D.A. and Dick believe their daughter is a miracle. The two had been married nearly 25 years and struggled with fertility issues when they had Missy, their only child. “It’s such a taboo subject, even now,” says D.A., who’s 62. “All of it was very trying.” Dick says the two probably weren’t ready for parenthood, anyway: A former college football player from Canada, he focused on his work and advanced to executive positions with 7UP, Coors Brewing Company, and Reebok; D.A. became a physician and worked as a physician consultant with the Colorado Department of Human Services in the Developmental Disabilities Division. “I didn’t have time for D.A., let alone a family,” says Dick, who’s 66 and cofounder and president of the Rocky Mountain division of Cleantech Open and works from the family’s two-story home. “When we finally had Missy, it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to enjoy this.’ We already had the BMW and Porsches and houses. Now we could sit down in a rocking chair and bring this kid up.”
Late last year, Missy’s high school class went on a three-day retreat to Colorado Springs, and parents were asked to write letters that their children would read privately. Her father hesitated before he wrote his note; he was unsure if he should put his feelings into writing. Eventually, he did. “I told Missy how much I loved her and that, unfortunately, I would only have half the time on this planet that most fathers would have with their daughters,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “But who she is—she’s made up all that time. You know, it’s a tradeoff, but this has been good for us.”
From an early age, Missy was big. A visit to the mall once earned D.A. a rebuke from a woman who was shocked that a kindergartner was still wearing diapers. Missy was two. When she turned five, Missy joined her neighborhood swim team and set a league record for girls six and younger in the 25-meter backstroke that still stands. In kindergarten, Missy drew a picture that included a stick figure with her childish rendering of the Olympic rings.
Missy won nearly all of her races as a nine-year-old and had already been on a nationally competitive club team—the Colorado Stars—for two years. It was there she met Schmitz, a Bismarck, North Dakota, native who has now coached her for nearly a decade. “Obviously, she was really good, but she only liked racing superfast,” says Schmitz, who once owned a lawn-mowing company (its motto: “You grow it, we mow it”) and now runs the Stars’ operation full-time. “She hadn’t realized that she needed to translate that motivation into practicing.” Of course, she was just a kid, but even so Missy soon learned the value of practice. By the time she was 11, she was paired with the Stars’ elite swimmers.
During Franklin’s first 400-meter relay with the teenagers that year, she was assigned to the anchor position—the last person of four into the water, and often the fastest swimmer in the group. That she’d been paired with three other teens meant that a fourth teenager was bumped from the group. The decision became a point of contention, though Missy was too young to understand. One by one, her teammates dove into the pool with a splash and cheers from the three remaining girls. Then it was Missy’s turn to swim. “She went in. The other girls walked away, like a protest,” D.A. remembers. After the race, Missy pulled herself out of the pool. No one was there to meet her. “It broke my heart,” D.A. says. “I had tears in my eyes—I was in pain—and told her I’d talk to someone and fix it. But she was mad at me. She said, ‘Stay out of it, Mom. It’ll be OK.’ ” Missy knew she had another race—the 100-meter freestyle—and that she’d get a chance to compete against the same girls who’d just ignored her. When she stepped onto the block for the event, D.A. saw her daughter’s stone-faced look. “I just knew,” she says. Missy won the race handily. “She had to prove herself,” her mother says. “She didn’t have any problems after that.”
By 2008, Missy had qualified for three events at the Olympic trials in Omaha—the last step before joining the U.S. Olympic team. At 13 years old, she was the second-youngest qualifier and the youngest swimmer to swim three events at the meet (Phelps raced in his first Olympic trials as a 14-year-old). Though Missy didn’t make the team—her best finish was 37th place in the 100-meter freestyle—she gained confidence. As her parents drove her home to Colorado, the teenager planned the next four years of her life. “From that moment,” Missy says, “it was all about making the 2012 Olympic team.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.