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Missy Franklin, at 16, braces for uncharted waters

The media hype machine is already running full steam for the record-breaking U.S. swimmer, who first must worry about making the Olympic team.

April 27, 2012|By Philip Hersh
  • Missy Franklin gets ready to exit the pool after winning the 100 backstroke at an international event in Berlin last fall.
Missy Franklin gets ready to exit the pool after winning the 100 backstroke… (John MacDougall / AFP / Getty…)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The hype machine got in gear one day late last September, when an NBC Sports senior vice president came to Missy Franklin's house in suburban Denver to meet her and her parents and talk about the network's plans for the 16-year-old swimmer leading up to its broadcasts of the 2012 Olympics.

He told them the network wanted Missy in West Hollywood two months later for the photo shoot and interview sessions NBC does with likely Olympic stars, and that she should plan to be on call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — three hours longer than most of the other invited athletes.

D.A. and Dick Franklin saw that their daughter was slightly nervous hearing from a network big shot, "You know, you're going have a pretty high profile, Missy."

And her parents still were trying to grasp the idea it had come to this so fast.

After all, barely two months earlier Dick Franklin had wondered whether he should spend the extra money to accompany his wife to Shanghai for the world championships, because Missy was just another very good swimmer who had qualified for only one individual event, the 200-meter backstroke.

Then she won that event in U.S.-record time, got a surprise bronze medal in the 50 back when a teammate opted out of swimming it, and earned two golds and a silver swimming freestyle startlingly fast on relays. All the while, she charmed the media in Shanghai with her smile (braces and all, since removed), unabashed enthusiasm (rumor has it she keeps yammering even during races) and baby-of-the-team guilelessness (doing an impromptu hip-hop dance at a team function to the Usher song "OMG," with lyrics more than a little suggestive.)

And a great nickname, "Missy the Missile."

High school junior Missy Franklin suddenly was the most decorated woman at the 2011 worlds, the international swimming federation female athlete of the year and the next big thing in the sport Michael Phelps has turned into the featured attraction of NBC's Olympic coverage. Better yet, it looked for sure as if Franklin would be better yet by the 2012 Olympics.

"People want to see what is new and fresh," said four-time Olympic relay silver medalist Kara Lynn Joyce, who had trained with Franklin for a year before moving to another coach in April. "But Missy is not interested in being anything other than a 16-year-old right now."

A series of emails last fall asking NBC what it was interested in doing with Franklin as part of its Olympic buildup drew answers so cloak-and-daggerish you would have thought national security was at stake.

The secret was out on Wednesday, during the"Today"show extravaganza marking 100 days until the July 27 opening ceremony in London.

The first Olympic promotional ad on the telecast was devoted entirely to Franklin. The only one-on-one interview Matt Lauer did was with Franklin, and he finished it by saying, "We're going to spend a lot more time with you, Missy." (He taped a much longer interview with her for future use.) The Franklin promotional ad ran again later in the show.

"NYC with Matt Lauer! Unbelievable!" D.A. Franklin, a physician who works part time for the state of Colorado, said in a text message. "Limo from the airport. Makeup. Green room."

A few seconds later, she texted again: "Will be nothing unless she makes the team."

Swimming's Olympic trials don't begin until June 25 in Omaha. Franklin, who competed almost anonymously in three events at the 2008 trials at age 13, probably will swim both backstrokes, the 100 and 200 freestyles and possibly the 200 individual medley this time. She must finish in the top two to qualify for an individual event and most likely in the top six in the freestyles to be assured of a place in the relay pool.

Given her results last year, with the world's fastest times in the 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle, it would seem only injury or illness could keep her from London. But the U.S. trials are the world's toughest selection meet, more pressurized than the Summer Games themselves, and Franklin will go into them with attention she never before has faced.

"I don't think about the trials and the Olympics a lot," she said. "If I do, it's just going to stress me out and get me worried."

She had piled her 6-foot, 1-inch body into the corner of a living-room sofa, her limbs as relaxed as a cat curling up for a nap, an attitude belied by energy that never flagged during a lengthy interview.

"I'm always so excited about what I do that I try to get everyone to feel that way," she said. "Hopefully I don't annoy people too much. I'm just an all-around happy girl who loves everything about her life."

Franklin has learned to be happy in the spotlight as easily as she did being in the water without flotation aids from the time she was 2.

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