- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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OMAHA, Neb. -- For most teenagers, the story would have been ultra-embarrassing. Cheeks would have turned red, hands would have ended up on hips and loose-lipped parents would have been in big, big trouble. But Missy Franklin, if you didn't already know, is unlike most teenagers.
After an exhausting day of competition at the Indianapolis Grand Prix this past March, the then-16-year-old swimmer stopped by her mom and dad's hotel room with a request. It had been a long day; a long week, actually. And now, with her body sore and her mind drained, she needed a favor. She needed to cuddle.
"She wanted to crawl between us and have us give her a great big hug," her father, Dick Franklin, said. "She's very, very cuddly. It hasn't changed since she was little."
As surprising as that may seem for any teenager, not to mention a world-class athlete who stands 6 feet 1 and weighs close to 170 pounds, the real shocker came the next day, when Missy found out her father had shared their bonding tale with a reporter. But Missy didn't scream or yell or freak out. She didn't worry what the boys might think or what this might do for her high school reputation. Instead, she laughed, smiled, and owned up to her cuddling ways.
"It's true," Franklin said with a chuckle. "I walked right into that room and needed a cuddle. Everybody needs a good cuddle once in a while, right? Who doesn't like a hug?"
As the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming trials get underway in Omaha, Neb., on Monday, Franklin is the brightest young star in USA Swimming, a 17-year-old once-in-a-generation talent, the experts say, who has the body, drive, mental makeup and ability to star not only in London, but for many Olympics to come. She won three golds, a silver and a bronze at last year's world championships and is the world-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke.
Those who love hyperbole are quick to label her the female Michael Phelps, and Phelps himself calls her a "stud." She's currently entered in five events this week -- the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles, as well as the 100 and 200 backstrokes.
But at the same time, she's still a typical teenage girl whose friends call her Gooberface. She listens to Justin Bieber, loves "The Sound of Music" and travels with a Teddy bear in her backpack. While many of her competitors focus full time on training, she carries a 4.2 GPA and cherishes the time she spends with her friends, acting like a goofball as much as she does winning gold medals. And yes, she cuddles with her parents.
And therein lies the everyday tug-of-war that takes place within her. The faster she swims, the stronger the pull becomes to grow up. More training, fewer sleepovers. More interviews, fewer movies. More drug tests, fewer pool parties. More pressure, less fun.
But if there's any teenager who can handle such tension, it's Franklin, who this week will try to smile, giggle, cuddle and, yes, swim her way to London with her mom, dad and coach right by her side.
'Born to be in the water'
Franklin and her 33-year-old coach, Todd Schmitz, are driving from their Indianapolis hotel to the IUPUI Natatorium doing what they pretty much always do: tease each other. The skies are gray. The ground is wet. The rain just stopped. But Schmitz is wearing sunglasses.
"So glad you're wearing sunglasses, you know, just in case the sun comes out," Franklin jokes.
Schmitz shakes his head. "Whatever," he says. But a few seconds later, the glasses come off.
It's like this all the time. When traveling, Schmitz refuses to let his swimmers play Bieber in the car. During one trip, when Franklin tried to slip a Bieber song onto a mix CD, Schmitz pressed the eject button and heaved the CD out the window.
"It's out there somewhere," he says.
On this short drive, "Roxanne" comes on the radio. When Franklin asks who's singing, Schmitz tells her it's the Police. She shrugs. The conversation turns to the generation gap between the two of them and, to make his point, Schmitz asks the swimmer if she's ever heard of Larry Bird. The same Larry Bird who retired three years before Franklin was born.
"Yeah. Totally," Franklin says. "Doesn't he have a talk show or something?"
"No," Schmitz tells her. "That's Larry King. Larry Bird was a basketball player. You know, for the Celtics?"
The two have been going back and forth like this for pretty much most of the last decade, when an ultra-tall 7-year-old girl showed up at Schmitz's pool and asked to join the Colorado Stars swim team.
"I really remember her blonde hair standing about six inches taller than the rest of the 7-year-olds who were there," Schmitz says. "When they said she was 7, it was like, 'Whoa, are you kidding me?'"
It wasn't easy for Franklin to appreciate her unique size -- in first grade, a boy she liked told a friend he didn't like girls who were taller than him. She struggled to find clothes and shoes that fit properly. But in the water, she was at home. She had been addicted to the pool since she was a toddler and her scared-of-the-water mom put them in a Mommy and Me class. It was love at first splash. Suddenly, family vacations with Mom, Dad and Missy were spent at the beach or hotel pool from sunup to sundown.
"On the water, under the water, cold water, hot water, tropical water, pool water, cement reefs, whatever it is in the water, she has loved every single minute of it," Dick Franklin says. "She was born to be in the water."
And born to win. At 6 years old, she won her first race, a 25-meter backstroke. Her grandmother told anyone who would listen that her granddaughter was going to be an Olympian. By 10 years old, Missy was competing against 12-year-olds. At 12, she told Schmitz her goal was to swim at that year's Olympic trials. She was the youngest swimmer to make the trip to Omaha. Then, last summer in Shanghai, even before she had her driver's license, she won her three golds, a silver and a bronze medal. And in October in Berlin, she had her first world record.
"She hasn't changed a bit," Schmitz says. "She's truly and genuinely like a kid, and that's what I think makes her so special in the water."
The water is truly Franklin's home. It's where she goes to dream. That's one of the reasons she plans on becoming a marine biologist when her career is over.
Says Missy: "I can be anything in the water. I can do anything. When I was little, I would pretend to be a dolphin looking for a treasure, or a mermaid. It just sparks my imagination. Even at competition, when I'm in the warm-down pool, I can be anywhere. The water is just so relaxing to me. It's like my home."
No one else like her
The task is simple, really. Look serious. How hard is that? But Franklin can't do it. For five minutes, she has performed all of the poses the photographer has asked of her. Hands on her hips. Biceps flexed. Arms extended to reveal that wingspan. But every photo has come that bubblegum-sweet smile. And now the photographer needs something else.
"Oh no," Franklin says. "I'm not good at these. I can't get angry."
She tries to look serious, determined. And yes, angry. But all she does is giggle, laugh and turn red. The photographer asks what upsets her. Losing a race?
"Bad grades," Franklin says.
Pretend you failed a geometry test, he suggests.
Franklin tries to pretend. She can't. Her expression is more sad than angry, more like her dog had died than that she had failed a math test.
"Seriously," she says. "I can't do this. I'm always smiling."
Spend a few minutes with Franklin and most people walk away wondering: Is that real? Is someone really that bubbly, outgoing and comfortable in her own skin? That caring? And the answer is yes. After one high school meet, Grant Barbeito, one of two producers/directors working on a documentary about Franklin and the Colorado Stars swim team, watched Franklin pick up other swimmers' garbage around the pool.
"It brought a tear to my eye," Barbeito said. "I just don't know anyone else like her."
"It's not fake," Schmitz says. "This is truly her. That smile is real. The bubbly is real. And you get it at 7 a.m. and at 8 p.m. It's always there."
If anything, Franklin is too friendly and accommodating, and too unwilling to say no. And the more success Franklin has, the more people want from her. Interviews. Autographs. Pictures. Time. It's one of the reasons Schmitz has worked to encourage her to not be afraid to speak up. Once in a while, it's OK to not be polite. To him, especially.
"This is going to be an epic failure if she's not willing to speak up for herself when something is not ideal," he said. "I don't mean workouts. I mean where we go for dinner. If she says 'Oh that's fine,' but then she doesn't eat anything, that's not fine. She needs to speak up. You can't tell me four years later that restaurant was a bad idea. I'm not a mind reader."
Franklin is trying. Just like she tries to balance having fun and staying focused. Each morning on her drive to school, she quietly prays and sets a series of goals for the day. It might be as simple as staying better hydrated or being a better friend or taking better notes in AP U.S. History class. Or yes, speaking up when things aren't right. Every day there is a goal, built entirely around becoming a better Missy.
"It's just something I've learned to do," she says. "It helps set my path for the day."
As his daughter sits on the pool deck below laughing with her teammates between races, Dick Franklin's cellphone buzzes. It's a Google Alert notification. There's another story out there about his daughter, the latest a piece by The Associated Press. The story says Missy is "poised to become the face of American swimming on the women's side."
"See?" Dick says, showing his phone. "This is what I'm talking about. It's hard. ... There are 25-year-olds who couldn't handle that sort of pressure. And this is happening all the time. It's constant."
If the Franklins had their way, they would do everything within their power to keep their daughter away from the ongoing chatter about her imminent dominance this summer. But they don't have to. Missy already decided long ago not to read, watch or listen to anything that's written or broadcast about her. Even last summer after the family returned home from Shanghai and Mom and Dad innocently asked her to watch the world championships on the DVR, she refused.
"We were like, 'Come on, honey, let's sit around, just us. Let's hear what they have to say,'" Dick recalls. "But she wouldn't do it. She said if we wanted to watch that was OK, but she was going to go up to her room. She's just never wavered from any of that."
Every chance they get, Dick and DA, who are both in their 40s, try to remind their daughter how much they love her. The couple never thought they were going to be able to have kids. Missy is their miracle. Now everything they do is built around making their daughter's life easier. They won't let her get a job, insisting she focus on school and swimming. And lately they've done everything they can to try and ease the mounting pressure. They know their daughter is on Twitter. They know they can't shield her from everything. So instead they hammer it home that, no matter what happens this summer, they will be there at the end waiting with open arms. Seven medals, no medals. Truly, it doesn't matter. Just have fun.
"If she makes the team on a relay, we should celebrate," DA says. "Not go, 'Oh gee, she didn't do what we expected.'"
Schmitz's expectations are undoubtedly a bit higher, but he's also trying to manage them. That's one reason he imposed a media boycott as of April 1. Since then, there have been no more photo shoots or camera crews following her around school. Life has been about swimming, school and friends. Nothing else.
"Missy's story is an awesome story," Schmitz says. "It deserves to be told. But at the end of the day, if we don't make the team, the story will be, 'Oh, look at this teenage phenomenon who crashed and burned.' It doesn't matter what you did last year. We lay an egg in trials and we're sitting there watching. That's the reality."
Should the opposite happen, plenty of grown-up decisions await. Dick Franklin says there are Fortune 500 companies waiting for his daughter to turn pro and sign endorsement deals that could approach seven figures. And there are college coaches drooling at the possibility of the senior-to-be stepping onto their campus in the fall of 2013. One such coach from a small school in Louisiana wrote in his recruiting letter that if Franklin chose his school, he'd give her his firstborn. "We got a kick out of that one," Dick says.
The decision is 100-percent Missy's to make, her parents say. But it won't be easy. At some point in the coming months, Dick and DA will sit down with Missy and explain to her that a million dollars could lead to her future security, her children's education, and it won't disappear with a shoulder injury.
"I'm not sure she understands what a million dollars is and what that could do for her," Dick says. "But as long as we have that conversation and come out of it feeling good that she understands, if she wants to go swim in the NCAA, we'll of course support her."
For someone who loves being part of a team, college sounds like the path Franklin is about to take.
"I'm 17 years old," she said. "I don't need to be a professional in anything. This is my time to learn and experience, see what I like, what I don't like. I want to swim in college so bad. It's going to be so much fun."
After the screams and cheers finally subsided and Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker finished his hug, Missy Franklin grabbed the microphone in front of a gym full of her high school peers and tried to say thanks. The school had surprised her with a good luck rally and now the girl who always seems to be smiling had something else on her face: tears.
"I can't even tell you how much this means to me," Franklin said to her classmates. "You guys are my life. I love you so much, and just knowing that no matter what happens this summer I still get to come back home to you is the best feeling in the world."
After controlling her emotions, the girl who someday hopes to be on "Dancing with the Stars" revealed some of her talents. She shook her hips with Father Phil Steele, the school president, and then revealed her renditions of the sprinkler and the worm, flopping her body along the gym floor.
A few weeks later, she was at Dove Valley, the Broncos' practice facility, shaking hands with John Elway, Peyton Manning and John Fox while watching the team practice. Elway was one of several Broncos who signed a football for Franklin that read "Great things are going to happen. Good luck."
Then, late last week, there was an lively going-away dinner with her closest friends and family. She then walked around her neighborhood knowing that the next time she was home, life wouldn't be the same.
For now, the focus is on swimming well in Omaha. This is what all the early mornings and long workouts have been about, putting deposits in the bank as Schmitz likes to say. Now it is time to see what is in the account and make some withdrawals. There's a sense of comfort since Franklin has swam here before, but there are still nerves. Just the other night, she woke up in a panic that she was at trials and missed an event.
If and when nerves do strike, Mom and Dad will of course be there for support. On Sunday, a few minutes before she stepped onto the podium for her pre-trials press conference, Franklin was asked whether or not cuddling would be on the agenda this week in an effort to help her relax.
The 17-year-old smiled, wrapped her arm around her mom's waist and pulled her in for a hug.
"Of course," she said with a smile. "There will definitely be some cuddle time."
How will 17-year-old phenom Missy Franklin shoulder the load of mounting expectations this summer? By leaning on everything from Justin Bieber to cuddles from her ultimate support group.