Missy Franklin always has a smile dancing at the edge of her mouth. Even when she’s just talking, she looks like she’s smiling, ready to burst out into a laugh. When she laughs — which is often — she doesn’t sound like Tinkerbell, as the name Missy might suggest. She has a hearty laugh, and it never quite stops; it just trails off, as though an echo is still there. People who have no expectation of smiling find themselves laughing when Franklin is around.
Franklin dances through life. She dances in her room at home in Colorado with her music blasting on her speakers. She dances in her room at UC Berkeley. She even dances on the pool deck before a big event, a time when most athletes are in quiet contemplation or are building toward a competitive frenzy.
Having won four gold medals the summer after her junior year in high school at the 2012 Olympics, the teenager and her bubbly persona were in such high demand that she could have earned millions of dollars in endorsements. But she had always wanted to swim with a college team, so she politely said no to the many offers and danced off to UC Berkeley, where she enrolled as a freshman in the fall.
She spends hours every day staring at the bottom of a pool while she does laps, often gritting her teeth through workouts that leave her arms and legs heavy, so she can win medals at major championships; then, she smiles that megawatt Missy smile and gives some of the medals away to little kids, all while feeling like she’s the one getting the gift.
After winning a race at nationals, she gave her 100-meter freestyle medal to a little girl acting as a basket carrier, picking up the gear swimmers drop near the blocks right before the start of a race. A couple of months later, Franklin received a note from the girl’s parents saying their daughter had been discouraged about her swimming but returned to the pool with a passion after Franklin gave her the medal.
“I think the parent notes are what get me the most, when they’re saying thank you for doing this for our child,” Franklin says. “It renders me so speechless.”
Fellow Bear Nathan Adrian, who has won three Olympic gold medals, says that even though he is seven years older than Franklin, he finds himself looking up to her.
“I’m not nearly as patient as she is,” he says. “If I’m really tired from a session, she’s equally tired or more tired, but she’s still talking to little kids with a huge smile on her face. It’s incredible. It means so much to them.”
There may come a day when the attention wears Franklin down. At least for now, though, she seems to treat her celebrity as just another part of the glorious dance.
After all, how many people get to sing “Call Me Maybe” with the girl who wrote the song? Sit behind One Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards? Play tennis with Novak Djokovic? Have John Elway, Peyton Manning and other Denver Broncos stars sign a football with personal notes wishing her the best?
And those moments aren’t even her favorite.
“I don’t think I could pick one,” Franklin says, before quickly correcting herself. “Actually, I could.”
“Prince Harry. He sang to me on my 18th birthday, and it was about the greatest thing ever.”
Franklin’s life in the water began because of fear. Growing up, her mom was scared of the water and wanted to make sure her daughter never felt that way. So she took her only child to a class at 6 months old. The other babies screamed and kicked after being dunked. Then there was Missy.
“She loved it,” says her mom, D.A. “When she came up from the water, Missy would have a huge smile on her face, giggle and try to go back under again.”
She competed and won often as a young child. Then, at 12, she vaulted into the big leagues. In a meet at the University of Denver, she hoped to qualify for Junior Nationals, a huge feat for any child. But then, Missy shocked everyone, especially her parents. Her times were so good that she met the “open” standards, meaning the preteen could swim at the national championships against the very best of any age.
At that point, Franklin was still involved in a number of other sports, including skiing, basketball and soccer — her nickname on the soccer team was “Boomer,” because when she got the ball, she just kicked it in whatever direction she felt like. One by one, she eliminated sports until it was just swimming left.
“I just remember swimming being ‘the One,’” she says.
The choice was soon ratified when, at just 14, she swam for her first national team. At that point, D.A. says, “She became the property of the United States of America.”
But even before she made the team, she swam at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, with the biggest of the big names: Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones — all of whom now have gold medals. At 13, Franklin looked like a little girl with a smile too big for her face, yet she was competing against adults who had spent years honing their skills and strengthening their bodies. She didn’t make it past the preliminary round in any of her three events, the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle and the 200-meter individual medley, but she had an epiphany.
“That was the meet that I realized that my dreams were possibilities,” she says. She was in the pool with the best of the very best and was in the mix.
On the drive back home to Denver, she told her parents, “I want to be back here in four years, and I want to have a shot at making the team. That’s all I want.”
But her dedication to making the U.S. team in 2012 came with a price.
“It was kind of hard for my friends to understand why I could never hang out and why I could never go to sleepovers and all this stuff,” Franklin says. “That was kind of the time that I realized balancing this was going to be hard.”
When she started gearing up for the 2012 Olympic Trials, her training went to a whole different level. She sometimes swam so early in the mornings that it was still completely dark outside, even in the summer.
After four years of heavy lifting and intense training, the trials finally rolled around. This time, Franklin felt like she fit in.
“I just remember swimming being ‘The One.’”
— Missy Franklin
Her parents made the trek out again to Omaha, but despite some sense of how exceptional their daughter had become, they didn’t anticipate what was about to happen.
“We were totally shocked,” her father, Dick, says. “We were ecstatic when she won her first qualifying event. We had an Olympian, and if it had ended there, it would have been enough.”
Franklin, still just 17 years old, qualified in four individual events.
She has always had an advantage because of her height and body structure — her 6-foot-1 height and 6-foot-4 wingspan help her move through the water more quickly, and her size-13 feet are what her dad calls her “built-in flippers” — but swimming is more than just about body type.
“Her size definitely helps, but she has great intuition about the water,” says 12-time Olympic medalist Coughlin. “She feels the water really well, and when it comes to races, she’s fearless.”
Todd Schmitz, Franklin’s personal coach for much of her career, including during the 2012 Olympics, says he’s never seen a swimmer like Franklin.
“She swims more like a guy than a girl,” Schmitz says. “She holds an incredible amount of water and generates so much power. She just uses every inch of her body to her full advantage. ”
At the Olympics, Franklin competed in seven events, more than any U.S. female had ever competed in at the Olympics. She took gold in the 100-meter backstroke, 4×200-meter freestyle relay, 200-meter backstroke and 4×100-meter medley relay; took bronze in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay; and finished off the podium by a tenth of a second in the 200-meter freestyle. She finished fifth in the 100-meter freestyle.
Her four gold medals were the most for any female athlete at the London Olympics — and she wasn’t even a senior in high school.
She even broke the world record in the 200-meter backstroke in a dominating performance. When she finished, she pulled off her light-purple goggles and looked up at the Jumbotron. Her smile still looked like it was too big for her face, just as it had when she was 13 and hadn’t even made it out of the prelims at the U.S. Olympic Trials. But this time, she had been faster than anyone else in history.
Standing on the podium, the tears started running down her face as she desperately tried to sing along to the national anthem, the emotion getting in the way.
Both her parents were sobbing.
During the 100-meter backstroke, Missy showed her ability to dig deep and find another gear. After the first 50 meters, Franklin trailed the favorite, Australia’s Emily Seebohm, who had a .25-second advantage. But after the turn, Franklin went into a gear that was almost inhuman and beat Seebohm by .35 seconds.
Seebohm looked like she didn’t know what had hit her, but the rest of the world did. It was Missy the Missile.
When the Franklins traveled from London back to Colorado after the games, they were stunned to find out how big a celebrity Missy had become. Upon landing in Denver, ground personnel had lined up U.S. flags on both sides of the plane and had flags in their hands as they stood waiting for the Olympian. Red, white and blue balloons and streamers flew around everywhere. The family walked in to find the terminal packed, because it had been announced that Franklin was arriving at Gate 15.
It took the Franklins three hours to get out of the airport.
The media circus didn’t end once the Olympics were over. D.A. had to give up her job as a family physician for a couple of years to deal with the interview requests and fan mail. She estimates they have sent more than 6,000 autographs all over the world. She also says that some of the letters they get from young swimmers about how Franklin has helped them are amazing.
“I’m just so proud to know she’s helping kids like this,” D.A. says.
On Halloween in 2012, a number of little girls came to the Franklin house dressed up as Missy Franklin. Even at a mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, fans swarmed around her.
“We’re on the other side of the world,” Dick says with a laugh. “Give me a break.”
So as the toast of the nation and the best swimmer in the world not named Michael Phelps, the next thing on Franklin’s agenda was at almost the other end of the glamour spectrum: She went back to swimming for her high school team and led them to a Colorado state championship.
Her high school coach at Regis Jesuit, Nick Frasersmith, who has known her since she was 9, says, “If she could brush off all the fame, she would . . . so other people would get that recognition. Sometimes, I have to remind myself of the amazing things she’s done, because she’s so humble.”
At Cal, she’s jumped in wherever head coach Teri McKeever has needed her. For instance, she swam 2,400 yards over two days at a meet against highly ranked Florida because McKeever needed a swimmer who could place well in the longer events. That’s a 1 ⅓ miles, or three or four times what she would have done if she had just swum her best events.
Franklin has won an individual NCAA title in the 200-yard freestyle, as well as the title in the 800-yard freestyle relay, where she began the anchor leg 2 ½ seconds behind, but somehow found that “Missy the Missile” high gear and put her team on the top of the podium.
She has said she will swim for the Bears for two years before turning pro and preparing for the 2016 Olympics, but she’ll continue to attend UC Berkeley as an intended psychology major. Talent agents say she should be on every company’s short list leading up to the 2016 Olympics and could easily recoup the millions in endorsements that she passed on to come to UC Berkeley.
Working with McKeever, the women’s head coach at the 2012 Olympics, has been great for Franklin. It also helps that Franklin is surrounded by some of the top swimmers in the country, including Adrian, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Caitlin Leverenz and 2004 gold medalist Dana Vollmer.
In addition, Franklin has had an opportunity to become close with Coughlin, one of the swimmers she idolized as a child.
Their first meeting at the Charlotte Grand Prix left quite the mark on Coughlin.
“Usually, people who don’t know me tend to be intimidated,” Coughlin says, “and this 14-year-old girl before one of our races just says to me, ‘Oh, hey, girl,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’”
At the World Aquatics Championship in Shanghai in 2011, the team convinced her to perform karaoke. She picked out an Usher song and performed the entire dance from the music video perfectly.
“This 14-year-old girl before one of our races just says to me, ‘Oh, hey, girl,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’ ”
— Natalie Coughlin
“She just has so much confidence,” Coughlin says. “There’s no way I would have been able to do that at such a young age.”
Coughlin, who won five medals at the 2004 Olympics before graduating from UC Berkeley in 2005, says she has some idea what Franklin must be facing in college.
“I just feel so protective of her,” Coughlin says. “I know what it feels like to have so much pressure on you. When I went to Cal, we didn’t have social media, and I felt a lot of pressure. She could be at a deli, and someone could tweet a photo of her. There’s a creepiness to it all.”
But Franklin has still managed to love being at UC Berkeley. She’s greatly enjoyed spending time with her roommate and fellow swimmer, Kristen Vredeveld. They dance around their UC Berkeley-issued dorm room together to songs such as Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” which was the subject of a Cal swim team choreographed dance.
“We have dance parties all the time,” Vredeveld says. “She’ll get new stuff on iTunes and start going through it and just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to dance to this song.’ ”
The two fell so completely in love with the songs from the movie “Frozen” that when Vredeveld forgets her key to the room, she uses the knock from the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” to let Franklin know it’s her.
Franklin has spent loads of her free time going to children’s hospitals in the Denver area, hoping she can do anything to put a smile on the faces of these children who are hooked up to machines and are awaiting surgery rather than running around outside playing tag or climbing trees.
“It’s unbelievably difficult, but it’s the most rewarding experience in the world,” Franklin says. “It just goes back to my faith that I’ve been so blessed, and God has given me this opportunity to walk into a room with a gold medal and make someone feel better. I’m so grateful for everything they let me do for them. I’ve just made the most wonderful friends there.”
One of these friends is a little girl who recognized a kindred spirit in Franklin. She was being held by a nurse, but soon she and Franklin were twisting and twirling around the room, enormous smiles on both their faces. Franklin has kept in touch with the girl’s dad, staying updated on how the girl, who Franklin says is one of her biggest inspirations, has been doing.
“Missy is a complete sweetheart,” says Mallory Weggemann, a gold medalist at the 2012 Paralympics who spent time this past summer scuba diving with Franklin as part of the documentary, “The Current.” “It’s so easy to forget how young she is, because she is wise beyond her years … She’s the same with the camera on as she is with the camera off.”
Her father speaks for a lot of people when he says, “I don’t know a happier human being on the planet. She just loves life and finds joy in everything. I tell her to be like her father and get moody, but she doesn’t listen.
Just look at how Franklin handled being just slightly late for an interview with The Daily Californian: She got caught up in an important conversation with her professor when she realized she was supposed to be on the other side of campus. Franklin ran so hard, weaving in and out of the students on campus, that she arrived for the interview panting heavily and apologized profusely.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she barely managed to get out, between gasps for air.
Then, she smiled.