The first time Missy Franklin found herself in the same swimming pool as Olympic medalists Natalie Coughlin, Amanda Beard and Katie Hoff, she was a mostly invisible 13-year-old, almost too shy to ask for autographs. It was 2008, and Franklin was among hundreds of swimmers gathered in Omaha, Neb., to compete for the few spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
Franklin never made it to Beijing. She was too young to swim with the best in the world back then. But not too young to be inspired.
"It really, really focused me for the next four years," Franklin said recently in a telephone interview from her home in Centennial, Colo. "I remember sitting in that ready room for treatments and just saying, like, in the next four years, I want to be back here in this same spot for finals, and I want to have a good shot at making the team."
Three years later, Franklin is no longer hoping to someday be among the elite swimmers in the world. She's one of them."She's a stud," none other than Michael Phelps told The Washington Post in May, when the two were in Charlotte, N.C., for a USA Swimming Grand Prix event. "She can get in and swim with anybody, and it doesn't faze her."
That's what Franklin did at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China, last month. She won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze, set an American record in the 200 backstroke, and helped the 4x100 medley relay team to another American mark.
Franklin was called the breakout star of the championships. Not that she would have noticed.
"I don't like watching myself on TV, I don't like reading about myself," Franklin said before the world championships. "Sometimes when my mom finds a fun article and really wants me to read it, I will. But I prefer to just kind of focus on what I want to do and not really what other people are saying, because I don't want that to affect me too much.
"For me, it seems to help me take the pressure off if I don't pay attention to what other people are telling me."
She has had to ignore the accolades for a while now.
Franklin set the American short-course record for the 200-meter backstroke, winning a silver medal at Dubai in December when she was 15. She led all swimmers with 17 golds in the USA Swimming Grand Prix Series in 2010-11, competing against some of the best in the country.
Days after her performance at the world championships in July, Franklin flew to Stanford, Calif., to compete in the USA Swimming National Championships. While some of the top Americans skipped the nationals, Franklin overcame jet lag to win the 100 backstroke and 100 freestyle -- her two best strokes right now.
Franklin also continued to work on her versatility, competing in the 200 individual medley, where she finished fourth. Although she considers herself a backstroker, nobody wants to limit her talents.
"Absolutely, she's going to have a stroke that's world-class level, but the other strokes can be very, very competitive on a national level and I think that's important," said Teri McKeever, who will be the U.S. Olympic team women's swim coach in London. "I would hate to see her at 16 just go to a Grand Prix and just swim the 100 and 200 back and that's it. I think she has a lot more to offer, and I think with more events in her repertoire, I think it'll allow her to have a longer career."
It's far too early to know what heights that career might reach, but it's hard not to wonder. At 6-foot-1¼ with a 6-foot-3 wingspan and Size 13 feet, Franklin has the perfect swimmer's physique. Couple that with an unwavering mental discipline, the poise of a veteran, and the fearlessness of a 16-year-old.
That's Franklin. She's the girl with the braces on her teeth, who just earned her driver's license and a hand-me-down Toyota 4Runner she has named "Blake," the girl who aches over the decision of whether to swim for her high school team next season as she prepares for the Olympic trials again.
At the same time, she's also a world-class competitor.
"She will be laughing, she will be on the deck having fun, talking to competitors, enjoying the whole thing, and then she steps up on the blocks, it's like a switch goes off and when that goes off, it's just her and the water," said her father, Dick Franklin.
"And then when she comes back and finishes the race, it's back to shaking hands, smiling and congratulating other swimmers, jumping out of the pool and going back to warm up and have some more fun. Very definitely an on-and-off switch. But she's all business when she stands up on those blocks."
That competitive streak runs in the family. Dick Franklin, born and raised in Canada, was a defensive end who was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. An injury led him to quit football and earn an MBA.
"Right from the beginning, she had an intensity when she was little, even 5, 6," said her mother, D.A. Franklin, a physician working part-time for the state of Colorado as a consultant for the developmentally disabled. "She had a real passion for swimming. She loved competing. Practice? She didn't see the point of practice until she was probably about 10, 11, 12. She just thought the meets were fun. She saw all of her friends from around the state. She just loved competing. She thought practice was really a waste of time."
That changed around 2007, when Franklin decided to see if she could post a fast enough time to qualify for the Olympic trials in Omaha. The only way to do that? Practice.
"For a 12-year-old out of Colorado to say that at that point, that's not necessarily a realistic thing," said her coach, Todd Schmitz. "We didn't necessarily tell everybody that.
"But yeah, I'd say I really saw that transition kind of at 11 or 12 where she really started just kicking butt on a daily basis in practice."
And that was that. Franklin set her mind to it, and at 12 years old, made the Olympic trials with qualifying times in the 50 and 100 freestyle and the 200 individual medley.
Coughlin, who competed in six events in Beijing and came home with six medals, doesn't remember noticing Franklin at the trials. They didn't meet until last year.
Back in the late 1990s, Coughlin was that young, up-and-coming swimmer who would eventually develop into an Olympic champion. Now that spotlight is focusing on Franklin.
Could she be the next Coughlin?
"Maybe," Coughlin said. "I don't know. And honestly, why does she have to be me? Why can't she be herself? "
These days, that's been plenty good enough.