To understand the numerous ways Missy Franklin's life has changed since the 17-year-old won four gold medals at the 2012 London Games, one has to look no further than the master bedroom of her parents' Denver-area home.
There sits thousands of unopened envelopes and boxes, all waiting for Missy, her mom, dad, a family friend or helping neighbor to open. The thank yous, the good lucks, the congratulations, they come from all walks of life -- from grandparents and grade-school children, to adoring teenage boys and idolizing teenage girls. There are dolls, bracelets, necklaces, pictures, drawings and beef jerky. Yes, beef jerky.
"It's been unreal," Franklin said. "I mean, nobody's ever sent me beef jerky before."
I just try to sit here and not lose my mind with everything that's going on. I just try to appreciate every day as much as I can, and just try realize how truly blessed I am.” -- Missy Franklin on her post-Olympic life
Franklin's coaches, teammates and a host of folks from USA Swimming warned this might happen. They told Missy and her parents that among the things that would be different when she returned home as a star would be the mail suddenly arriving by the box. It would slow down by October, they said. But it hasn't.
Each time the Franklins start to make a dent in the pile, there's the mailman with another box or Franklin herself arriving home from school with another bag full of letters. She's a high school senior, remember. An amateur. There is no agent or marketing team or multimillion-dollar organization to process letters and send automated responses. Instead, it's a mom and pop operation -- literally.
"I am so far behind," said Missy's mom, DA Franklin. "Everything is just stacked in the master bedroom. It's a disaster. You want to get back to everybody but it's hard.
"Don't get me wrong. It's great. It's exciting. It's wonderful. But it's way beyond what we ever expected."
This, of course, is what happens when you win four gold medals and a bronze in your first Olympics and then entertain the world with your bubbly, infectious, mega-watt personality. Missy Franklin not only stood atop the podium in London more than any other swimmer not named Michael Phelps, but she did so in a genuine, endearing way that made her one of the most popular athletes of the Games.
One moment she was tossing her hair back and mugging for the camera in USA Swimming's "Call Me Maybe" video, and the next minute she was winning her first Olympic gold a mind-boggling 14 minutes after a preliminary swim. Ruthless in the water, charismatic and approachable out of it. This is the recipe everyone seems to love. This is why her time is now in such demand.
Since London, she's appeared on "The Tonight Show," as well as the red carpet of MTV's Video Music Awards and the Glamour Awards. She has taped a guest appearance on her favorite show, ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars," as well as a scene in the upcoming Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson flick "The Internship."
"It all seems insane. Totally crazy," Franklin says. "It still doesn't feel real. It's like I made the whole thing up."
Now, seemingly everywhere she goes, Franklin causes a scene. It happened at a Denver Broncos game, where this year Franklin and her parents needed security to reach their seats. And once there, the teenager was recognized as fans passed items through the section for her to sign.
"They were taking the shirts off their backs," DA said. "Literally."
Even in her own house, where her unassuming Alaskan Malamute, Ruger, helps keep things normal, life is occasionally anything but. Like a few days after London, for example, when the kitchen counter was covered in celebratory cakes that people had baked for her.
"I was like, 'Mom, what are we supposed to do with all this cake?'" Franklin said. "At one point, we had 20 cakes. The support is unreal. My fans are amazing."
At church, security now needs to be alerted when the Franklins arrive. The same thing happens when Missy goes through Denver International Airport.
"There are times where people come up and start talking for a second, I wonder, 'How do you these people know me?' And then it's like, 'Oh yeah, swimming.'"
Yeah, swimming. Don't let Franklin fool you. This was all part of her and coach Todd Schmitz's master plan; not the insanity surrounding her, but total dominance in London. At every practice and meet for the four years leading up to the Games, that was the goal.
At Olympic trials, Franklin qualified for seven events, a women's record. Then in London, while shouldering potentially crippling expectations, she set two world records and three American records while winning five medals. And she was one one-hundredth of a second away from winning a sixth medal. Even Phelps himself called her performance "incredible."
Now comes the challenge of building on that success under increased pressure, scrutiny and attention and, in the bigger picture, becoming one of the faces of the sport after the retirement of Phelps, swimming's No. 1 attraction.
"I want to take it upon myself to continue what he started and keep the popularity of the sport growing," Franklin said. "Even though it wasn't said, I feel the torch has been passed down. I feel like that's a big part of my job now."
It's a job that will undergo a major transformation next fall when Franklin enrolls as a freshman at the University of California. For the first time in more than a decade, she will swim for someone other than Schmitz, who she has worked with since she was 7. Unlike Phelps, who turned professional and worked with coach Bob Bowman his entire career, Franklin turned down millions in potential endorsement money to live the life of a college student. She'll swim for Cal coach Teri McKeever, the head coach for the U.S. women's team in London.
"It was a tough decision, but in my heart, I was meant to be a Golden Bear," Franklin said. "I'm so, so happy. I cannot wait to go there, and at the same time, that means I have to leave home. Every time [her and her parents] talk about it, we start crying."
DA Franklin said the plan is for Missy to swim collegiately for two years and then turn professional in March 2015, some 15 months before Rio 2016. At that point, she will stay at Cal and swim for McKeever's club team. The decision will allow Franklin to cash in on potential marketing opportunities before, during and after the Games.
For now, the focus is far simpler -- practice, dry-land workouts and trying to live a relatively normal teenage existence. It isn't easy. While attending the Glamour Awards in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, Franklin was uncomfortable that many of the emergency responders who were being honored wanted nothing more than to meet and say thank you to her. She wouldn't have it.
"I was like, 'Excuse me?'" she said. "'You're not even allowed to thank me. No way. Are you serious?'"
Instead, Franklin insisted, she should be thanking them. And so she did. It was yet another surreal moment in this strange new world.
"I just try to sit here and not lose my mind with everything that's going on," Franklin said. "I just try to appreciate every day as much as I can, and just try realize how truly blessed I am."