Missy Franklin's omnipresent smile is a perfect symbol for the U.S.'s relaxed dominance in the pool. And her Olympic journey has only just begun
This is an article from the Aug. 13, 2012 issue
THERE WASN'T a more fearsome foursome in London's Aquatics Centre. Heading into the final women's swimming event of the Olympics last Saturday, the members of the U.S. 4 √ó 100-meter medley-relay team had won a combined 12 medals, including eight golds, and set three world records in the first seven days of the Games. Their time in the ready room, traditionally a chamber thick with intensity and frayed nerves, was a last opportunity to radiate terrifying calm and stare daggers into the backs of opponents.
So there stood backstroker Missy Franklin, breaststroker Rebecca Soni, butterflyer Dana Vollmer and freestyler Allison Schmitt moments before the race—hugging and smiling.
For Franklin, at 17 the youngest of the four and the sole Olympic rookie, the only way to approach a race is with joy and camaraderie. All week, as she competed 15 times in seven events, she had given the ready room the vibe of a sleepover party, with the rest of the aquatic world as her guests. Before the 200-meter backstroke final, she and 19-year-old teammate Elizabeth Beisel calmed each other by laughing at themselves on TV and daydreaming about the McDonald's meals they'd indulge in when the meet ended. (One rival swimmer remarked, "We didn't have such great fun on the Russian team.") After she broke the world record for her second individual gold medal (Beisel took bronze), one of Franklin's first comments to the media was, "I had the time of my life out there."
Franklin finds fun in whatever she does, which is just one facet of her expansive charm. Tall (6'1"), gracious and photogenic, with a warm smile and a mass of auburn hair she often piles atop her head in a towering bun, Franklin became the first female U.S. swimmer to take on seven events in a single Olympics. She would leave London with four gold medals, one bronze and two near misses—she came in fifth in the 100 freestyle and missed third in the 200 free by .01 of a second—as well as world records in the 200 backstroke (2:04.06) and the medley relay (3:52.05). It was arguably the greatest Olympic performance ever by an American female swimmer (Natalie Coughlin won a record six medals in Beijing, but only one was gold), and it was unquestionably the most impressive Olympic debut by a U.S. swimmer of either gender not named Phelps.
IT WASN'T easy to grab the spotlight in a week when Michael Phelps was taking his final laps in an Olympic pool. But it was impossible to ignore Franklin and the rest of the U.S. women, who won eight gold medals (14 total) and set four world records. It was the highest medal count for the U.S. women since 1984, when many of the best swimmers in the world stayed home because of the Soviet boycott. "The energy has gotten better every night, each session," said the 24-year-old Vollmer, who set the team's winning tone with a world record in the 100 butterfly (55.98 seconds) on the second day of competition. "It has been incredible to watch the young ones step up."
The youngest was 15-year-old Katie Ledecky, a high school sophomore from Bethesda, Md., who set a withering pace in the 800 freestyle and touched first in one of the biggest surprises of the meet. Her time of 8:14.63 broke the oldest American record on the books, Janet Evans's 1989 mark of 8:16.22. "She is unbelievable," said Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington, the world-record holder and defending Olympic champion, who came in third. "I definitely think she'll break my world record [8:14.10] at some point."
The win was also a surprise to Ledecky, who started thinking about making the Olympic team only last September. "I didn't really expect gold," she said, "but I'll take it."
One more swimmer who exceeded her own expectations was the 22-year-old Schmitt, another 6'1" redhead who loves to laugh. She took a year off from her psychology studies at Georgia to train with Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, at the North Baltimore Aquatics Club. Phelps provided technical tips and advice on managing her energy. Schmitt provided comic relief in practice. "They're like brother and sister," says Bowman. "They tease each other all the time."
In London, Schmitt was hoping to improve on her Beijing performance (a bronze in the 4 √ó 200 free relay), but she never imagined her final medal haul: three golds, a silver and a bronze. In the 200 free, her only individual-race gold, Schmitt dominated from the start, winning in a U.S. record of 1:53.61, almost two seconds ahead of France's Camille Muffat. "Honestly," said Schmitt, "I feel like I smiled through the whole race."
FUN WAS a theme all week for Team USA, which created a video spoof of Carly Rae Jepsen's song "Call Me Maybe" on the way to London and posted it on YouTube on the eve of the Olympics as a kind of calling card. (It has had almost five million views.) Even Phelps shed his Terminator facade after he came in fourth in his first event, the 400 IM, well behind teammate Ryan Lochte. As he opened up more to the media and his teammates, he seemed to swim better, his unexpected silver in the 200 butterfly notwithstanding. "Once we started with that clunker in the IM, we thought we might as well have some fun," said Bowman.
In this Olympics it was Lochte who had the burden of expectation on him. Hoping to win five or six golds, he won two, along with two silvers and a bronze. In part two of his showdown with Phelps, the 200 IM, an event in which he holds the world record, he came in second. But if he was upset, he didn't show it. "I definitely wanted to get golds in everything, but I can't be disappointed," said Lochte, who turned 28 on Aug. 3. "I'm bringing home five Olympic medals."
So is Franklin, a senior honors student at Regis Jesuit High in Aurora, Colo., who dedicated her 100-meter backstroke gold—the first she won—to the victims of the movie theater mass shooting in that town last month. Although she was taking on an ambitious program that only a handful of male swimmers have ever attempted—Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and Phelps—she showed no signs of stress or self-absorption. "I had a few times where it's hard not just to sit down and go, I'm exhausted, I'm so tired," she said last Friday. "Those are the times when it's most important to keep a smile on your face. To get up and say, 'You know what, so many people would kill for this opportunity.'"
Her secret to keeping emotionally stable through such a taxing week, says her coach with the Colorado Stars club team, Todd Schmitz, is her ability to stay out of competitor mode as long as possible. "You watch her before a race, she comes out and waves and smiles," he says. "Then she gets behind the block and it's boom—the goggles go on, and she's looking down that lane, and it's game on. When she finishes, she's out of game mode just like that. It's a special skill to have, I don't care what sport you're talking about."
On July 30, Franklin pulled off what might have been the performance of the meet. After swimming a 200 free preliminary in the morning, she faced the double from hell: the 200 free semifinals followed by the 100 backstroke final, with just 14 minutes to recover in between. It's a window so narrow that even Phelps has never attempted anything like it. After qualifying eighth in the semi, Franklin received special permission to warm down in the diving well adjacent to the competition pool during the men's 200 freestyle final. Stopping periodically for a slug of an energy drink, she lazily stroked through 375 meters, about a third of her usual postrace routine, and got out. A few minutes later she was on the blocks again. Adrenaline still high, she blazed out to the fastest 50-meter split of her life, but she didn't start to pull away from the field until the final 25 meters. With a backward lunge to the wall, she hit in 58.33 seconds, .35 of a second ahead of runner-up Emily Seebohm of Australia, for her first Olympic gold.
At the press conference later, Franklin pulled the medal out of her pocket to show the media. "Isn't it pretty?" she asked. The next day she made a score that her dad, Dick, thinks might be an even bigger deal to her than a gold medal: a congratulatory tweet from teen heartthrob Justin Bieber. "heard @FranklinMissy is a fan of mine," the Biebs tweeted on Tuesday. "Now im a fan of her too! CONGRATS on winning GOLD! #muchlove"
Franklin tweeted back, "I just died! Thankyou!"
IN THE pool there was no such swooning. By the end of the week Franklin had three more golds—in the 4 √ó 200 free relay, the 200 back and the medley relay—to go with the 4 √ó 100 free-relay bronze she won on July 28. All that hardware will produce a certain financial pressure. She has insisted she wants to swim in college. (Currently her short list of schools includes Cal, USC and Georgia.) But some sports-marketing experts have put her potential endorsement value at $1 million to $2 million a year if she gives up her eligibility and turns pro. "She's looking forward to a full-ride scholarship, which is a significant financial implication," says Dick, a former executive with Reebok and Head. "But if there were to be some horrendous amount of corporate money thrown at her, then you'd have to sit down with her and say, 'Honey, I know you don't understand what a million or two million dollars is, but that could be your children's education, that could be your house when you get married.' And then if she goes, 'Yeah, but I still want to swim for my school,' then that's what she'll do."
Despite an Olympic week that has undoubtedly changed her life forever, Franklin says she can't wait to get back to Colorado and start her senior year at Regis. Among the things she is looking forward to: official college recruiting visits; monthly gatherings of the Anglophile Club, which she and a bunch of friends started sophomore year to indulge their obsession with British culture; and decorating the white overalls that spirit-minded Regis seniors wear to football games. "I have so many fun things that I'm looking forward to," she says.
Then, in January, Justin Bieber arrives in Denver for a concert. "She has tickets," says Dick. "I think she'll get backstage passes now."
An exclusive photo gallery by the legendary Neil Leifer of athletes and their medals at SI.com/olympics