With Michael Phelps headed for retirement after the London Olympics, the United States will be in need of its next big star in the pool.
Paging Missy Franklin.
The 17-year-old swimmer from Aurora with the can’t-miss smile (now braces free), maturity and charisma seems more than capable of answering the call.
Franklin is certainly as versatile as Phelps, to whom she’s often compared. The 14-time Olympic gold medalist has paid her the ultimate compliment for any swimmer, calling her “a stud.”
The swimming world has already taken notice of Franklin. This summer the rest of the world will, too.
Being tabbed as her sport’s next big thing is a label Franklin isn’t completely comfortable with.
“It’s an honor, but it’s still hard to believe and I don’t really think of myself like that,” she said recently. “I still see myself as a girl that just gets to go swim every day with all of her friends.”
Franklin will be doing just that at the U.S. Olympic trials, which begin Monday in Omaha, Neb.
She’s entered in five events — the 100 and 200 backstroke, the 100 and 200 freestyle and the 50 free. She must finish in the top two to qualify for an individual event and the top four in the freestyles to be assured of consideration for the relays in London.
Franklin comes into the eight-day meet — regarded as more pressure-packed than the Olympics themselves — with the fastest seed time in the 200 back, and the second-quickest times in the 100 back and 100 and 200 free. Her time in the 50 is 11th-fastest.
“I haven’t gotten nervous yet, but I am sure it will come,” she said. “I get nervous, especially at the big meets, but I am also comfortable with that feeling because it doesn’t take me long to get relaxed and ready to perform.”
A compelling matchup comes against 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin in the 100 back. Coughlin is the top seed with a time of 59.12 seconds; Franklin is second at 59.18.
Those two will square off in the 100 free, too, where Franklin is seeded first and Coughlin second. They got to know each other during last year’s world championships in Shanghai, where Franklin impressed Coughlin with her ability to handle big-meet pressure.
The teenager calls the 29-year-old veteran a role model.
“I get to have a real friendship with her, which is so, so exciting and a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” Franklin said.
She figures to make plenty of memories over the next couple of months, and not just in the pool.
“I will get to meet a bunch of great new people, too,” she said. “It’s not all about the pressure of performing — the Olympics is also about having fun.”
Franklin is an imposing figure when she steps on the starting block. At the “take your mark” call, she coils her 6-foot-1 frame, the toes on one of her size 13 feet curled on the edge of the block, and waits for the sound of the electronic starting beep.
Then she flies off the block and cuts into the water, surfacing several meters later using her 6-3 wingspan and large hands to churn through the pool.
Four years ago in Omaha, Franklin was an anonymous 13-year-old competing in three events. Her best finish was 37th in the 100 free.
“I was in complete awe,” she recalled. “It was so exciting to swim in front of 8,000 people in prelims. It will help going back this year. I feel like I know the pool and will understand the weight of what’s going on.”
The trials spotlight will shine brightest on the rivalry between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, but Franklin is next in line to carry the load. She comes in as the world champion in the 200 backstroke and has been relentlessly hyped as a likely Olympic star.
Not just for her swimming ability, either.
There’s her catchy nickname, “Missy the Missile,” bestowed by her father, Dick, five years ago.
And her boundless energy, unflagging enthusiasm (even for morning prelims), and humor have impressed her fellow swimmers on the national team.
“It’s unbelievably refreshing to have her energy on this team,” Coughlin has said.
Franklin is conscious about not annoying anyone who might not share her excitement for life’s moments, both thrilling and mundane.
“She’s what you’re supposed to be,” Jack Bauerle, who coached the U.S. women at worlds, said last summer. “She makes everybody on the team a little bit better, cares about everybody else and really has an innocence about her that she just loves to race.”
The teenager who only learned to drive last summer is already the prize recruit among college coaches eager to snag her for their programs. Southern California’s Dave Salo said he and several other coaches have informally agreed not to court Franklin during next week’s trials.
She and her parents remain adamant that Franklin plans to swim in college, which is why she’s turned down six figures in prize money as well as untold thousands more in endorsements.
Her parents have fended off agents who’ve suggested Franklin forgo college to rake in the big bucks now. She’ll be a senior at Regis Jesuit High in suburban Denver this fall.
“For my parents to let me turn down the money that I have been offered to go pro, it’s unbelievable,” said Franklin, an only child who came along later in the lives of her father, a clean-energy consultant, and her mother D.A., a family physician.
“They want me to enjoy my senior year in high school. I am so excited to be a senior, finally. It doesn’t get more fun than that.”
As a family, they have resisted suggestions Franklin relocate to such powerhouse training bases as California, Florida or Texas so she can work with a big-name coach. Instead, she has been with Todd Schmitz since she was 7.
Franklin unabashedly names her mom as the most influential person in her life. D.A. Franklin keeps things low-key around their Centennial, Colo., home by eschewing talk of swimming.
“That allows me to get my mind off all that’s going on for a little while,” said Franklin, who looked forward to a recent family outing to see “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
“Mom plans things for me that keep me being a real teenager, which is fun but also important to me.”
Franklin recently lived the fantasy of many teenage girls when she got glammed up for an appearance in Vogue.
“I was always that kind of girl that just throws on sweats and goes, so being in Vogue was a little surreal and over the top,” she said.