Olympics 2012: Missy Franklin, just 17, seems ready to handle the pressure

July 4, 2012

Wearing his brand-new red, white and blue sneakers, a crisp Team USA jersey and a boyish grin, Todd Schmitz, 33, could have been mistaken for one of the 2012 U.S. Olympians introduced to wild applause after swimming’s high-pressure Olympic trials, which concluded Monday night.

Much like his star pupil, Colorado high school senior Missy Franklin, 17, Schmitz looks younger than you would expect for the responsibility he holds.

Next to Michael Phelps, Franklin represents Team USA’s biggest medal hope at the London Summer Games. She and Phelps have the same goal: seven medals. By the Closing Ceremonies, she could be Team USA’s most famous and celebrated female athlete.

Despite those heavy expectations, and a sobering history of stumbles by other promising teens at their first Olympic Games, precisely nobody at USA Swimming seems concerned about the state of mind of either Franklin or Schmitz, her longtime coach at the Colorado Stars club team.

“I’m comfortable if they’re comfortable and [I] trust both of their judgments — and Todd in working with her,” said Teri McKeever, the coach of the U.S. women’s team. “I’m just continually more and more impressed with her. She’s 17 years old, but she’s a professional.”

Franklin is actually a true amateur who has taken an unusual course: She has turned down prize money and sponsorship opportunities in the six digits to keep her collegiate eligibility intact. She’s preparing to return for her senior year at Regis Jesuit High after a Summer Games in which she will be a major focus of NBC’s coverage.

After the 100 backstroke final last week, Franklin described herself as “speechless and over the moon.”

“I am the luckiest girl in the world,” Franklin said. “I learned that if I just keep a positive mental attitude that I can go out there and do whatever I hope I can do. It’s all mental in getting out there, and having confidence in myself, and having strength and knowing I can do it.”

After Franklin clinched her spot in a fourth individual event by running away with the 200 backstroke title over the weekend, Schmitz received his invitation to London, too.

At just after noon on Monday, the call came on Schmitz’s cell phone as he waited for Franklin, who was signing autographs in a Speedo store. It was U.S. national team director Frank Busch letting Schmitz know he, too, would travel to London for the Summer Games as an assistant on the U.S. coaching staff. Schmitz admits the honor brought tears to his eyes.

He said he’s not daunted, just excited.

“I have no doubt in my mind, both of us are going to be more relaxed going into the Olympics than we were here at trials,” he said. “Just the pure fact this meet is so long and grueling and such a battle of wills. . . . Ninety-nine percent of people don’t always get to their [dream] destination. We want to enjoy what we’re seeing along the way.”

That will be no trouble at all, Schmitz said, if last year’s world championships in Shanghai are any indication. Instead of being intimidated by the pre-worlds training camp and the intensity of Team USA’s preparation, Schmitz and Franklin reveled in it, he said. Accustomed to scrounging for practice time at crowded local pools, the pair enjoyed access to a gorgeous complex with a wide-open pool, a gleaming weight training facility and no constraints on access.

“It was the most relaxing two weeks each of us ever had,” Schmitz said.

Franklin, who has been competing at senior international events since she was 14, emerged as an international force there, winning three gold medals, one silver and one bronze. Back then, and during last week’s Olympic trials, Franklin consistently exuded pure delight during interviews. At no point did she display fatigue or consternation.

“I love how I feel right now,” she said after one event semifinal. “Strong and powerful. It’s so awesome to feel this way and to be able to come here and do what I came to do.”

And, she added before walking away from a group of reporters: “Thank you so much.”

Coaches say the way young stars handle pressure is as important as their training base going into the Olympics. Towson’s Katie Hoff vomited on the pool deck after emerging from the preliminary round of the 400 individual medley at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, when she was 15. She finished just 17th overall. Dubbed “the female Michael Phelps” four years later, Hoff also failed to meet expectations at the 2008 Summer Games and fell short of making the Olympic team here after fighting illness.

The day after winning her final event, the 200 backstroke, Franklin showed up at the pool for an 8 a.m. workout, Schmitz said. She wanted to talk, he added, about what she could do to get faster in time for the London Games.

“Instead of having the mind-set of being satisfied, she wanted to know, ‘How can I make this machine better?’ ” Schmitz said Monday night. “I told her . . . ‘You have more speed. I know you can go faster.’ ”

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