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 is 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:
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.
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."
-- For the full story on Missy Franklin, click here.