Taped above Ed Moses' locker in the University of Virginia Men's Swimming locker room was a slip of paper with four words on it: "Nothing's easy, nothing's hard." That was in the fall of 1999, when I was visiting UVa as a prospective student-athlete. It was less than two years after Ed first swam a serious workout in the pool and less than nine months before he would win a relay gold and an individual silver at the Olympic Games in Sydney.

"I still try to live by that today," Ed says over the phone. "It's not going to be easy, what I have to do. It's one of the hardest things in the world to do, to be the best at swimming. But at the same time, it's not going to be too hard to do. You've got to believe in yourself. If you want a way, you're going to find a way."

Most people in Ed's position, regardless of how much belief in themselves they could muster, would consider what he is attempting quite hard indeed – so hard, in fact, as to seem nothing shy of impossible. After a meteoric rise to success and fame in 2000 that kept Ed in the swimming limelight for four years, he missed the 2004 Olympic Team by a tenth of a second and, staggeringly disappointed, Ed walked away from the sport.

He stayed away -- far away -- for almost six years. Until the fall of 2010, Ed says, "It was never, 'When I’m ready I'll come back.' It was, 'I am not coming back.'"

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But against all his prognostications and against quite a few odds, Ed is back in the pool and back on the list of Olympic Trials entrants, giving the sport's ultimate laurel wreath one more run for its money.

Nothing's easy -- Ed Moses has that right. But has he finally chosen something too hard?

***

The hardest part, at least between now and June 25, 2012, when Olympic Trials begin, is obvious. Moses has to return to form from a six-year layoff. Most Olympic hopefuls train with at least a two-year planning horizon, and the majority of them have not taken any time off. "Swimming is a feel sport," Ed says. "It's something you can easily lose touch with. I’m glad I never got out of shape, but six years out of the water definitely hurt me."

Without a succession of periods of intense work followed by rest and a fast meet behind him, Moses hasn't had the opportunity to step back and assess which parts of the training regimen are working and which parts need tweaking. His first opportunity to do so will be this week at USA Swimming Nationals. In lieu of this kind of trial, error and adjustment, Ed is relying on faith and sheer determination. Which is part of what vaulted him to stardom in the first place.

He's got help in the form of Dave Salo, head coach at the University of Southern California and one of the most respected short-distance coaches in the world. A veritable all-star crew has assembled itself around Salo this year, including several of Ed's contenders: Eric Shanteau, Mike Alexandrov, Irish breastroke sensation Andrew Bree, and Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, who won gold in both the 100- and 200-meter events at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, and is widely considered the world’s greatest breastroker.

"It gets pretty aggressive," Ed says excitedly, "Every day of the year, you’re either trying to get the lane beside someone and race fifties or hundreds, or they’re behind you chasing you."

And "race" is exactly what they do. The traditional swimming philosophy holds that the best kind of yardage is more yardage, which usually requires at least 10 workouts a week. Salo, on the other hand, is a firm believer that older swimmers, especially sprinters, should train very fast only once a day.

The arrangement is perfect for Ed. Some swimmers love to train, love living a life that demands they swim long hours in the pool twice a day. Perhaps because he grew up swinging golf clubs on courses up and down the mid-Atlantic seaboard instead of swimming endless repeats facedown in a pool, though, Ed has always found swim practice to be somewhat tedious.

"Swimming is probably the ultimate sport where there’s not a lot of enjoyment that you get out of it when you train," he says. "You’re pushing your body 24/7 for very little enjoyment."

Enduring the pain and routine of Olympic-level training requires a special kind of determination. Just about every great swimmer has that near-masochism in droves. While Moses has proven, both early in his career and since returning to the pool, that he has the temperament and ability to push himself to be the best, he's also shown one can only trudge for so long. "At my age," he says, "it's hard to put in so much swim yardage. Not just from the reps, but from the monotony."

Between 2000 and 2004, Moses spent about a third of his workout hours outside the pool, and today that ratio tilts even further in favor of dryland. "From medicine balls to weights to different types of yoga," Ed says, "I spend almost equal amounts of time doing dryland as I do swimming." Putting so much emphasis on training outside the pool may very well be a "double-edged sword," as Ed calls it, but he finds the variety necessary "just so I don’t go crazy."

***

Another way Moses maintains his mental balance is through his ongoing work. Swim clinics, speaking engagements, golf charities and a host of social and business engagements he has developed over the last six years keep him constantly on the go. In 2008, Ed co-founded Mojo Marketing and Media, a sports marketing corporation whose unique mission, according to its Web site, is to develop sporting events that not only entertain, but also "encourage people to fully develop their personal social conscience."

While some of his ventures have had to be sacrificed, Mojo has continued to do well since Ed got back in the pool, primarily because his work schedule is flexible. And he says pursuing his other passion in life simultaneously to swimming offers a measure of security and confidence.

"It's been a blessing to have that," he says. "It's been my insurance policy. Not that I think I’m going to fail, because this whole process is about being successful, but if I’m not, I’ve already set up my life in other aspects that I love and that I’m successful in. I think it helps my swimming out even more right now."

One of Mojo's central tenets, Moses says, is to change "the psychology of 'giving back' -- to shift social responsibility and social conscience from a private to a mass market issue." This amalgamation of promotion and goodwill is evident in many facets of Ed's life. A longtime proponent of and participant in charitable ventures, such as Ronald McDonald House and the Mario Lemieux Foundation, Ed he knows he will continue in this vein when his swimming career ends again – whenever that may be.

In addition to charity work, though, he also plans to give back to the sport of swimming in ways that most other athletes cannot, and has a large-scale strategy to change the landscape in ways that no other swimmer today can.

As in most countries, swimmers in America struggle to find the time and especially the money to continue pursuing their Olympic dreams. Training between 40 and 50 hours a week, elite swimmers are often forced to postpone plans for careers outside the pool. Many of the world’s best succumb to the financial and emotional strain on themselves and their families and give up their passion in order to live a more sustainable lifestyle. This is a decision that Ed is familiar with, having made a similar one in 2004.

Ed's knack for business and his exposure through golf to sports marketing prepared him well to match his rapid rise to success in the pool with an equally accelerated rise to fame outside of it. He is a born personality -- photogenic, confident, witty, and always eager to supply the press with quotable forecasts or reflections -- and he made the most of his decision to relinquish his NCAA amateur status after two years of college swimming and turn pro. With a short course world record and two Olympic medals in 2000, Ed received media exposure and corporate endorsements far in excess of anything previously seen in the swimming world.

After missing the Olympic Team in 2004, however, and with the ascension of Michael Phelps in full swing, Moses faced a financial plateau and he quickly grew disillusioned with the sport and its rigorous demands.

"When I left swimming originally, I thought, "You’re wasting your time,'" Ed says. "'You've got to start setting up your life.'" A few months after 2004 Trials, Ed found himself thinking he was "doing the same [stuff] over and over again. It was my job. Seeing the same people every day. The same alarm going off every day. That’s not five months out of the year. What a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s, say, 350 days out of 365. There’s no off season."

Ed disappeared from the swimming world entirely. "I just left. I could not face it anymore. So I just picked up and left and went down to Florida so I didn’t have to hear it."

While the time away from the pool allowed him to "get my passion back" and "find myself again," Ed speaks with regret about the manner in which he left the sport. "I think I was selfish in walking away and taking everything I had learned and everything I had gained," he says. "I really want to do other things to help promote [the sport] and help get it out there. I think the stuff that I’m doing with Mojo is good, so I’m going to put a lot of emphasis on that and that’ll kind of bridge the gap for me from a personal perspective."

This motivation is part of what compels Ed’s every move. He considers himself a model for what the sport could be, and in point of fact his entire project leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games provides a prototype for a new celebrity American swimmer. While this may seem far-fetched to those who only tune into the summer Olympic Games every four years, and may seem like a pipe dream to many within the swimming community, Ed has concrete plans on how to begin boosting swimming into the pantheon of popular American sports.

A decade ago, this would not have been possible. At that time, swimming was still something to fill the downtime between track and field events and gymnastics routines. The sport has boomed, but not because of him. "We needed swimming to be the biggest sport at the summer Olympics," Ed says. "I think we got there. Michael [Phelps] brought it to the forefront."

The next step is to ensure that swimming does not fade from the general American sporting consciousness between Olympics. To do that, the focus needs to narrow from the Olympics to the Olympians, from swimming to swimmers. "Now it’s all about opening it up and getting the characters that are out there. Once [audiences] are exposed to the people and the lives inside the sport, then they’ll start to love it more and more. There are people out there that have kids, that have jobs, that can’t find a dollar and they’re the best swimmers in the world."

That, of course, is something that would come easily to the enormously likable Moses. So, by leveraging Mojo Marketing and his contacts in the production world, Ed has taken it upon himself to create the first mainstream reality swimming show -- about himself.

Stroke Kings, originally conceived to co-star and standout American swimmer Ryan Lochte, was set to debut on Universal Sports in early July. Lochte has since bowed out, pushing the start date back and leaving Ed to anchor a show that, according to the show’s Facebook page, "delves into the rigorous training of Olympic swimmers who struggle to resist being consumed by the seductions of celebrity and overcome personal hurdles."

While he is not at liberty to disclose exactly who will be some of the other swimmers involved in the show, Ed has said that Stroke Kings will feature a host of international athletes that "will really open up the sport of swimming worldwide."

"The whole show started with how I wanted to do this comeback," Ed says. "I wanted people to see what kind of person I am and just show people that I’m no different, that I came up from the same roots that most people did that get into sports,"

Ed believes heightening the entertainment value of swimming is a step in the right direction of expanding the audience of -- and therefore the endorsement opportunities for -- swimmers. "That’s the goal of everything that I’m trying to do with Universal," he says.

Along with Stroke Kings, Ed says he has "several other shows" with swimmers and other athletes that he hopes to get up and running prior to the Olympics next summer.

The fact of the matter is that Ed is in a perfect position to effect the kind of change he believes the sport needs to get it to the next level of professionalization. Mark Spitz may have had the name recognition, but there was no money to be had in the 1970s and the idea of a professional swimmer was unthinkable. Michael Phelps' celebrity has far surpassed Spitz's, and he inaugurated an era of corporate sponsorship previously unseen. But Phelps never intended to take up all the available money in the sponsorship world. Moses believes he has a chance to put the pieces together to make swimming entertaining year-round to audiences whose size and variety have heretofore been unimaginable.

The question remains whether swimming, which to the vast majority of athletes is an all-or-nothing sport, will reward someone with as many irons in as many different fires as Ed maintains.

***

Should he make the U.S. Olympic Team next year, Ed would be the second oldest male swimmer to do so in 88 years (Jason Lezak, who is pursuing his fourth Olympic Team, was also 32, in 2008; Duke Kahanamoku was 33 in 1924). The last, but far from the least, of the things that has not changed since Ed first started chasing Olympic gold at age 19 is his motivation. "Sometimes I look back on that and I feel like I'm the exact same person," he says. "I don’t feel like that is someone I can’t relate to, because I can."

It has not been that way since he first got back in the water last fall. "Ten months ago," Ed says, "I think if you asked the people around me they would say that I tried to portray the image that it was 100 percent different. It was about a path that I wanted to at least try and attempt. The first six to eight months, it was about filling a void."

Over the six years he was out of the pool, Ed attempted to reignite his golf game, but continued to fall just shy of making the PGA Tour. His competitive drive needed an outlet. Originally put in the water at 17 to help rehabilitate a golf injury, Ed says, "swimming was something I found quick success in and that satisfied my competitive edge. I wasn’t getting that fix with golf."

The last time he dedicated his energy to swimming, Ed made it into the highest echelons of the sport in record time. "I don't know if that's good in my life or bad in my life that I had so much success in swimming so quickly -- I don't want to say easily -- because it creates this impatience that I have in a lot of stuff that I do in my life." Since he could substitute swim training for the amount of time he was spending on the course and the range, he weighed his options and decided. "It's only a year and a half, and it's not like I have to change a lot of aspects of my life."

In the beginning, when all the signs began pointing him towards a comeback, Ed says, "I gathered up all that information and asked, 'What if I did?' I really couldn't see anything that really hurt me. I convinced myself the results didn't even matter. But that 'What if I didn’t try' -- I'd have to answer that for many, many years.”

Within the last three moths or so, however, since his fitness and feel in the water have come around, his perspective has changed from that of someone setting out simply to fulfill a personal quest. The success he’s had thus far in his comeback has "satisfied that competitive edge a little bit," and every week closer to Trials edges him ever closer to that myopic and intensely driven competitor who swam to medals in 2000.

"The scales have started to tip again," he says. "I knew there was going to come a point when it was going to change to 'Okay, you put yourself out there, people are saying things and have expectations for you and now you’re going to have to go and fulfill them.' That's just my personality. I really care about what other people think, about upholding an image that I hold myself accountable for."

The next 300-plus days will determine whether Ed lives up to that image -- and to the hype he has created for himself.

But when it comes down to it, Moses knows the hype is really after the fact. The final event -- any championship athletic event, the contest itself and the competitors within it -- is focused down to the narrowest aperture of the physical capabilities of a handful of men or women. At the moment of competition, all else -- all hype, all personality, all accomplishment or experience not directly related to physical performance -- becomes utterly immaterial. What are left are individuals and their respective preparation.

Having swum in such contests before, having both won and failed such contests, Moses is fully aware of what is required of him between now and June. What will ultimately matter the most when he steps up on the blocks will be the honest measure of his devotion to his dreams. "When you stand on the blocks and you look around and you ask, 'Did I do everything I could to make myself the best?,'" he says, "if you can answer that 'yes' then I think that you're winning, that you understand what dedication is."

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The widely-believed story behind the Olympic rings is actually a myth. Many of us grew up thinking each of the five rings represents a different continent: Blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and red for the Americas. But it isn’t so. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympics, never had the continents in mind at all. He saw the rings as a way of showing the connection between the various parts of the world.

But just for fun, we decided to name the Olympian to watch from each continent in the London 2012 Games, which begin one year from now.

Before we begin, please keep in mind that nobody has qualified yet and some of these athletes may not even be in London. Remember that Michael Phelps sustained a severe wrist injury in the months leading up to the Beijing Games and worried he’d have to drop out. So anything can happen. We've also narrowed the field down to athletes who have already won at least one gold medal.

With the fine print out of the way, here is each continent's top Olympian to watch in the coming year:

-- For a slideshow of Olympians, click here.

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One year from now, the 2012 Olympic Games will begin in London, where all eyes will be on the incomparable Usain Bolt -- the Jamaican sprinter who is more than living up to his name.

Since 2008, Bolt has taken a jackhammer to the 100-meter world record, lopping off a whopping .14 seconds. That might not sound like a huge chunk of time until you consider it's twice as much as any other sprinter has shaved off the world record since the advent of electronic scoring.

Logically, one would think that Bolt did so by moving his legs faster than anyone else. Only he didn't.

Speed, as it turns out, may be completely misunderstood. Several researchers contend that being fast has less to do with how quickly you move your legs than you might think.

When Bolt established the current 100-meter world record in the 2009 world championships, running it in 9.58 seconds, he did so by moving his legs at virtually the same pace as his competitors. In fact, if you or I were to compete against Bolt, our legs would turn over at essentially the same rate as his.

This is a theory put forth by academics and track coaches alike who contend that running fast has more to do with the force one applies to the ground than how quickly one can move one's legs.

More than a decade ago, Peter Weyand, a science professor at Southern Methodist University, conducted a study on speed. Comparing athletes to non-athletes, Weyand clocked both test groups as they ran at their top speed. What he found shocked him.

"The amount of time to pick up a leg and put it down is very similar," he says. "It surprised us when we first figured it out."

So if leg turnover is the same, how does one person run faster than another?

-- For the full story on Usain Bolt and the science of sprinting, click here

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Faster. Higher. Stronger.

McDonald's is certainly taking the Olympic motto to heart by building its largest restaurant ever for the 2012 Summer Games in London. The 32,000 square foot monstrosity is just one of four new locations the burger giant will use to serve the sports-loving fans who flock to the city. The restaurant expects to serve a mound of fast food over the nearly month-long Games. Early projections include 50,000 Big Macs, more than 100,000 portions of fries and 30,000 milkshakes.

But British health officials don't think there's anything happy about these meals.

"Given the huge public health issues of childhood obesity," said parliament health committee member Grahame Morris in a statement, "it is legitimate to question whether having the world's biggest McDonald's at the Olympic Park is sending an appropriate message to our young people."

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The British Medical Association went even further: "Given many countries in the developed world, and some in the developing world, are facing a major problem with obesity, it is unfortunate that McDonalds are major sponsors at the 2012 London Olympics."

The company, with over 32,000 locations worldwide, has been a sponsor of the quadrennial games since 1976. Next year the golden arches will take that presence to a whole new level, reports the London Evening Standard. The main branch in Stratford will stretch nearly half of a football field, hold 1,500 seats and require nearly 500 employees.

McDonald's will even have a location in the athletes' village, although who knows if any of the perfectly-toned competitors will fuel up before the biggest events of their careers with fries and a shake.

Certainly the health-conscious will continue to rue the consumption of so much fast food alongside such feats of human performance. For its part, a company spokesperson said in a statement that McDonald's food "can fit into a balanced, active lifestyle."

The BMA wants more discipline on the part of the company and its customers, insisting "these products should be seen as very rare treats."

Not likely. McDonald's believes one in five meals eaten during the Olympics in London will be one of theirs.

Faster. Higher. Stronger. Fuller? Or just fatter?

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On a cloudless late June Sunday morning in Santa Clara, Calif., the air is already hot enough at 9 a.m. to swallow up any remaining moisture on the athletes' bodies. The recurrent slosh of the outdoor swimming pool and the deliberately timed sounds of coaches' whistles help call attention to Olympians and world-record holders, such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, who are on hand at the George F. Haines International Swim Center for the last leg of the 2011 USA Swimming Grand Prix.

But as the preliminary rounds from the final day of this international contest get underway, another name -- not unknown, but unidentifiable to those outside of conventional swim circles -- sits atop the series' standings:

Missy Franklin.

Born Melissa Jeanette Franklin, this high school honor student from Centennial, Colo., is said to be the next big thing in American swimming. Based strictly on results, it's hard to argue otherwise. Although she does not have the five Olympic rings tattooed on her skin -- a number of her peers openly exhibit theirs -- she has legitimate 2012 Olympic aspirations and is already drawing comparisons to two-time Olympian and six-time gold medalist Amy Van Dyken.

Entering the closing day of this last tune-up before the World Championships that start Sunday in Shanghai, the 16-year-old had already amassed 24 medals during the course of the seven-stop series -- including a gold and two bronzes earlier in the four-day Santa Clara event. In November at the 2010 USA Swimming Foundation's Golden Goggle Awards -- think the Academy Awards of American swimming -- she was named the Breakout Performer of the Year.

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You might think such high praise would go straight to the head of this young and impressionable teen, or that the increased pressure would affect her performance. You would be wrong.

"Honestly, I feel like a part of swimming is that your swimming talks for you," says Franklin, with a slight slur imposed by orthodontics. "That it's OK to be humble outside of the pool, but be cocky when you're swimming, if that makes sense. I feel like when I dive into the water, then that's all that matters."

It is effortless to read on paper that she's 6-1 and flirting with 170 pounds, but upon first encounter, you are startled by her sheer size. She shuffles along the pool's deck, still growing into her immense frame. Her pale skin is radiant as it sends back the sun's rays and is accentuated by an all black one-piece swimsuit. Hot pink goggles suction to the top of her flat black swimmer's cap, which is highlighted only by a stylish red star outlined in white on each side. She has her mother's baby blue eyes, but with a cloud of gray.

"You can pull her out of the water and realize she's 16 pretty quickly," says her longtime coach Todd Schmitz. "The big deal right now is Justin Bieber and her 16th birthday party, and you want it to be that way. She's young age-wise, but not in experience. She's mentally mature."

"I think that’s something we hear over and over again," says her father Dick, looking on from the grandstand of the stadium. "She's very, very mature. I think it comes from her mom."

"Well, it doesn't come from him," her mother D.A. jumps in saying, gesturing at Dick. "We kid about it. Mom's the parent and she has three kids: Dick, Missy and the dog."

Joking aside, her parents believe two factors contributed to Missy's maturity and ease at developing friendships. They were an older couple when they had Missy, and she is an only child. The result is that Missy has a outgoing, warm personality, a trait that serves her well as her interview schedule continues to expand. Franklin has been fielding questions since she became one of the youngest ever to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2008. She was 12.

Dick, 65, always with business on the brain from his background in a handful of C-level corporate positions, including 7Up, Reebok and Coors, tells the story of how colleagues have inquired whether he obtained media training for his daughter.

"Nope," he says with the trace of a Canadian accent. "She's just so natural with the press, so flowing. So what you see is what you get. Her swimming is fabulous, but we constantly get the feedback from press and people in the community that she's grounded. I guess that's what we're most proud about. That's better than a gold medal sometimes. It really is."

Despite her proven acuity, Missy, whose two favorite words are "absolutely" and "amazing" -- usually in that order -- is still something of a kid and her strong social nature is most evident whenever she is near a pool.

"She loves meets because she gets to see her friends from all over the country," says D.A., 62, a doctor who has missed only one competition in her daughter's career, which has involved traveling to places like Sweden, Spain and Dubai.

"Every meet is playtime," adds Dick. "And then she'll stand on those blocks and all of a sudden you'll see laser focus, right? And when she finishes the race, she's smiling and hugging and jumping up."

Although she says she does not have a set pre-race routine, a dance before an event, or even at the starting blocks, has become one of Franklin's trademarks. This same approach to the sport has Franklin more concerned about who will be joining her to see the final installment of the Harry Potter films while on a trip to Australia than her preparations for the upcoming Worlds.

"I just think that I always have in the back of my mind that it has to be fun," she says, seemingly always holding back laughter. "Once you get into the fun aspect of it, then all the nerves, like, slowly just kind of die down a little bit and you realize that not everything in the world depends on this race. My parents are still going to love me even if I don't get the best time. Just simple things, like if you just realize that if you don't do as good as you want to, it won't be the end of the world. So just go out there and do what you can."

***

Back at the pool in Santa Clara, Franklin just finished qualifying for the 100-meter backstroke, one of her strongest events. She finished first in her heat, a preliminary round in a race, with a time of 1:01.10, and depending on how her competition fares in theirs, Franklin will swim in one of three final races, with the A, B or C group. The B group vies for points, while the A group competes for points and medals. Her latest effort should find her in the A group.

She wraps a blue-and-white striped towel around her core and promptly reports to Schmitz, head coach of the Colorado Stars club team and Franklin's coach since she was 7. The two hover over a hot dog-folded piece of paper and discuss the race and begin to prepare for her second prelim of the day, the 200-meter individual medley only 15 minutes away.

Schmitz's height shadows his star pupil's, hinting at his past swimming career. He points to a few notes before sending Franklin off to finish the necessary mental preparations for the seventh event, not including relays, she will swim by the end of the tournament -- a total not unprecedented, but rare at such meets.

How Franklin, a high school junior in the fall, has made it this far into the conversation of this established sport's most elite level, is an intriguing question. Her dad had a cup of coffee in the Canadian Football League before returning to school for his MBA, and her Aunt Cathy on her mother's side was a high-level Canadian hurdler, but these reasons alone are not enough to justify Franklin's success at such a young age.

Aside from factors such as work ethic, dedication and the ability to manage emotions during times of extreme stress, most, including Missy, point to her physical attributes as the answer to why she is so good. For swimming, these natural features are gifts indeed.

"Oh, I think it's helped me so much," she says. "God has blessed me with an excellent swimmer's body."

For starters, she has women's size 13 feet. "We call them built-in flippers," says Dick, who himself wears men's size 13.

While having such large feet is beneficial in the water, when Missy was growing up, it was not so ideal outside the pool. Dick remembers the days before Zappos and Nike's ID design online program, the ladies of the house had to shop for Missy in the boy's department.

"It was unfortunate," he says, "because there was never anything that Missy liked in the boy’s section, because at that age, you're looking for pinks, turquoises and bright colors. She gets a real kick out of shoes. And now we're even starting to see a few with heels, which we've never seen because she's always wanted to keep her heels on the ground."

Until high school, Dick says, Missy was always a little self-conscious about her feet and height. But one of the first times he recalls her wearing raised footwear was to the Golden Goggles ceremony at the Marriott in downtown Manhattan. "She was a little wobbly," he says, laughing, "but very proud of walking in there with her high heels on."

Though Dick is over 6-1, D.A. is just 5-4, and he chuckles thinking about how his wife told him she felt like she was in the "Land of the Giants" whenever Missy would introduce her swimmer friends, who were also bedecked in heels at the upscale event.

Dick thinks Missy gets her height from his parents, noting that his mother was tall, and that his father was 6-4. Missy was only 21 inches when she was born -- approximately average length for a newborn -- and a normal 7 pounds, 10 ounces, but she grew fast. At times, she was double-digit percentages above on the height and weight charts. Again, it was not always such a blessing.

"I remember when she was 18 months," D.A. says, "and she was in a stroller and someone came up to her and said, 'What's a big girl like you still doing in diapers?' And I looked at them -- I felt like saying, 'First of all, it's none of your damn business,' but -- I said, 'She's 18 months.' And they said, 'Oh, she doesn't look it.'"

D.A. and Dick had a running joke about how they would see the nice clothes they bought for Missy on all the neighbors' kids as hand-me-downs.

"And it's not because she wore them out either," says Dick, laughing. "Every three months: New shoes, new pants. She'd come down on a Saturday and go, 'I don't have any pants to wear,' and they'd all be up to mid-calf somewhere."

***

The phone is dialing. "Please enjoy the music while your party is reached," instructs a woman's voice. Jennifer Lopez suddenly greets the caller on the other end of the phone with the lyrics of "Hypnotico."

Franklin answers. She's just returned from picking up a bottle of Neutrogena SPF 100-plus sunblock from the local Colorado Kroger grocery store. The last time we spoke, she was in a car heading to a local Sprint Eliminator team meet, a grueling knockout tournament of sorts where each swimmer participates in all four 50-meter disciplines -- butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle -- until just one swimmer remains in each. The time before that, she was between her early-morning and afternoon practices, not to mention she does "dryland" weight and resistance training three times a week.

So goes the life of an Olympic swimming hopeful, no matter the age.

But once more, Franklin's age is the most astounding part of the story. In fact, for better or worse, it is the main reason why so many have been published about her, from Sports Illustrated to The New York Times.

Teri McKeever, the women's 2012 Olympic head coach, says that for a reason she still cannot understand, there tends to be an infatuation with the young prodigy and underdog story in swimming. Meanwhile a number of other deserving, established swimmers -- many of whom have already been on the sport's highest stage -- go unnoticed. So McKeever is hesitant to deluge an up-and-comer with media attention.

Also the Cal women's coach for nearly two decades, McKeever thinks it is a positive for swimming to make it into the mainstream press and believes Franklin is worthy of the acclaim. But she worries about the long-term impact it could have on Franklin if not handled properly.

"Think about when you were 16. Were you ready for this?" asks the reigning Pac-10 coach of the year from her office in Berkeley. "I'm not saying she's not deserving of it at all. I just selfishly don't want to have that be pressure and expectations on a young lady who is only 16 years old that's going to have a great career regardless of what happens in the next year. She's got many Olympics ahead of her because I think she's that good."

McKeever, 49, points out that it was not that long ago when only teenagers swam in the Olympics. She says things like Title IX, access to athletic endeavors through higher education, and sponsorship dollars have prolonged swimming careers much further than ever before, as recently as the mid-'90s.

"The face of the sport is changing by what is available to women in just the last 30 years," says McKeever, herself a two-time All-America selection at the University of Southern California in the early 1980s. "There's only so many people who can be on the Olympic team or national team or World Championship team. And if women, or even men, are staying in the sport longer than they ever have, naturally there isn't going to be younger people that are going to be able to break into that level. It's a numbers game."

***

By the time finals roll around at 5 p.m., the temperature has increased to an 85-degree scorch.

Franklin is sporting a pair of mirrored aviators and has switched swimsuits for the evening session. This one is a bit more colorful, with neon pink, yellow and teal across the front and the country's initials outlined in small, white block lettering across the chest.

She is again laughing and smiling -- always smiling -- with her friends as her parents look on from just a few bleacher seats above. Missy makes a crack to her dad about his Father's Day shirt choice, a purchase from the Tommy Bahama store earlier in the day, before providing a hug and heading down to warm-up for her first finals race.

The stadium now appears at near capacity as the finals get under way. The races go quickly and soon the C and B waves of the women's 100-meter backstroke have concluded, and it is time for the A group.

Nelly Furtado's "Maneater" blares from the stadium's speakers as the top swimmers for the event are led in from a temporary structure that resembles a large tent, simply known in swim-speak as the ready room.

Franklin looks calm, focused, though she still finds a couple moments to talk and smile with an opponent lined up in front of her. Wearing a black swimmer's parka draped over her shoulders, again accented by her hometown club team's star logo, Franklin appears to march toward just another barrier in the way on her path to realizing an Olympic dream.

A woman's voice, sounding robotic through the PA system, tells the group of nine to take their marks, and they all raise their upper halves a little higher from out of the water and stiffen. Franklin's pronounced backbone protrudes from the circular opening of her suit's back. The low grunt of a buzzer sounds, and with arms fully extended, it is a race to dive backwards into the water like the curve of a building's archway.

Each gains important distance underneath the water before resurfacing into a backstroke with added thrust from the rapid kicks of their feet. Franklin is off to a strong start in lane six, near the head of the pack.

D.A. and Dick are seated, but totally transfixed by their daughter. "Go, Missy," Dick says. And again, "Go, Missy."

The swimmers near the pool's boundary when the announcer declares overhead that Franklin currently ranks fourth in the world in the event for 2011. She put up a personal best of 59.56 in March.

The women precisely time the flip of their bodies, heels over head, attempting to gain propulsion by hitting the wall with their feet at just the right moment. Franklin touches second at 29.56, behind the fifth lane's Emily Seebohm from Australia, the top qualifier from the morning prelims.

Almost seamlessly, the women are back into their backstrokes in an all-out 50-meter sprint to the finish.

"Let's go, Miss!" screams Schmitz in the distance, hoarse from yelling at his group of swimmers for a fourth day. "Move!"

Franklin is still trailing Seebohm with 15 meters to go and another Australian, Meagan Nay, closing in on her pace.

"C'mon, Missy!" her father roars.

Her mother appears more controlled. D.A. will later say that it can be overwhelming to watch her daughter swim, but she always tries not to show too many emotions at meets one way or the other, similar to Missy. "Maybe I got it from her," she says.

The women make their final push, and in the same order, Seebohm touches first at 59.77 -- the fifth fastest time in the world for the year -- closely followed by Franklin at 59.98, and Nay last of the three at 1:00.96. The rest of the nine connect with the final wall within four seconds of the winner.

Upon finishing the race, Franklin immediately pushes her goggles to her cap and all of the women remain in the water and check their times. Seebohm and Nay cross the coiled blue lane rope dividing them with their arms and exchange an embrace. Franklin also moves toward Seebohm, smiles wide and connects her arms around her superior, at least for today.

Franklin hustles out of the water and makes a brief pit stop with Schmitz before the medals are awarded on the podium for all to see. While posing for photos, the exposed wire on Franklin's braces shines almost as brightly as the silver medal now prominently hanging around her neck. She hurriedly heads back to the ready room area to prepare for the 200-meter medley to do it all over again.

Later, she finishes fourth in the individual medley, showing that the youngster still has a bit to learn. The results do not shake her good-natured demeanor, and a handful of fans -- at least a couple her own age if not older -- approach her for photos and autographs.

Franklin still walked away from the Grand Prix Series with the High Point Award for the most cumulative points from the seven events, an honor she will accept at Nationals in Palo Alto, Calif., in August. But first comes Shanghai, where she will test her individual abilities in the 50- and 200-meter backstroke against even more of the world's best. After Nationals, the sole focus becomes the Olympic Trials in Omaha starting the last week of June 2012.

Until then, comparisons of Franklin to Van Dyken and other American swimming legends will surely continue, but McKeever is reluctant to force one swimmer's career to fit that of another's, especially with the implication of such high expectations.

"I am a firm believer that it's not about being the next version of someone else," McKeever says. "It's about being the best version of Missy Franklin."

The Olympic Trials will be the least forgiving of Franklin's career. Only the top two finishers from each event advance toward the fulfillment of a childhood dream. In the end, just hundredths of a second will likely determine who is granted a spot in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

For Missy Franklin, the awards, races and medals keep piling up, but with only a few exceptions, all are out of sight, stored in a box for safekeeping in the family's four-bedroom Colorado home. In the meantime, the memory of her first go-around to Omaha in 2008 when she was 13 is all Franklin says she needs.

"I remember sitting down there in the ready room during prelims before I swam, going, 'In four years, I want to be sitting right here, and I want to have a good shot at making the team,'" she says. "And that's what's really motivated me for the past four years, is just that feeling I had sitting there, just knowing that in four years, I was going to come back and I was going to be ready."

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