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:
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."
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."