CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Dick Franklin was reclining on a beach in Maui 13 years ago, reading a novel, when he heard his wife’s blood-curdling scream. D.A. Franklin had been snorkeling with their daughter Missy, then just under 3, when the toddler suddenly gave chase to a beautiful fish as it headed out to sea.
“She just took off, both fins just going like this,” Dick Franklin said, his hands imitating her splashes. “D.A., of course, can’t catch her . . . Hence the scream.”
Dick Franklin leaped out of his chair, threw his book into the sand and plunged into the surf to try to retrieve his daughter.
“I caught her 35 feet out in the ocean,” he said, “in about 12 feet of water.”
Said D.A., a casual swimmer: “That was it. I was done. I never snorkled with her again.”
Almost since birth, Missy Franklin, now 16, possessed an unusual appetite and aptitude for moving through bodies of water. A sophomore honors student at Aurora’s Regis Jesuit High, Franklin owns a world record and five world championship medals and draws frequent comparisons to Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever.
Promising young stars raise hopes in every four-year Olympic cycle, but rarely does one come along quite like Franklin. In an age in which ever-advancing training methods, equipment, nutrition and medical care have pushed speed records to almost incomprehensible levels, athletes such as Franklin and Phelps have advantages that can’t be otherwise acquired: bodies seemingly hand-crafted to excel in their disciplines.
Like Phelps, Franklin appears more suited for the sea than land. She stands 6-feet-1, wears size 13 shoes and sports a 6-foot-4 wingspan. When such phyically gifted swimmers perform at their peak, keeping pace with them is virtually impossible.
My “physique is definitely so helpful,” Franklin said. “My feet — my parents always say — are like my built-in flippers . . . I definitely don’t think I would be where I am in swimming without the body that I have. I am so blessed. I have height, the big feet, the big hands; I think all of that has helped me so much.”
At age 12, Franklin qualified for her first Olympic trials. By age 14, she traveled overseas with Phelps and other top U.S. stars after making her first senior U.S. team. Last October, she set a short-course (25-meter pool) world record in the 200-meter backstroke during a meet in Berlin, Germany. She has turned down nearly $150,000 in prize money, including $73,000 during a four-day period last fall, to maintain her collegiate eligibility.
“She has all the physical attributes . . . [and] flexibility and beautiful technique because of that,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’s longtime coach. “She has good proportion, the way her body is laid out . . . She’s the closest thing to Michael [that I’ve seen]. I don’t want to curse her with that.”
The physical traits are enhanced by the natural and instinctive; Bowman — who has worked with Franklin during various USA Swimming training camps and trips — also raves about her fearlessness and competitive spirit. Franklin’s parents say she first left their mouths agape when got she doused by a frigid wave in Charleston, S.C., at three months old, an event that left her cooing with glee while a similarly drenched baby cousin choked and screamed.
“I remember making a mental note then: This child has got an affiliation for the water,” Dick Franklin said. “It’s nothing fearful for her. It’s nothing but joy.”
Even now, Missy said, she likes nothing more than slipping into a pool, lying on her back and imagining herself a mermaid or dolphin.
“I feel so comfortable when I’m there . . . It’s a homey feeling for me,” Franklin said. “I always feel like a sea creature . . . I feel like I should have gills somewhere. I feel so natural in the water.”
When Missy was six months old, D.A. took her to “Mommy and Me” swim lessons, hoping her daughter could stave off a fear of the water her mother could never quite shake. When it came time for the babies’ heads to be lowered underwater, all but one wailed and cried.Missy smiled and opened her eyes wide, leaving D.A. unnerved.
By two, Missy could swim by herself. At 2.5, she could snorkel. And on family vacations from her toddler years on, Missy wanted to do only one activity.
“It was the same scenario all of the time,” Dick Franklin said. “Missy was in the water and one of us were watching her, and it went on, not for an hour or two hours, it just went on all day, all week. It was the water and nothing else.”
Said D.A.: “We were scared she was going to drown, she loved the water so much.”
In her first year with the neighborhood Rocky Mountain Swim League, she earned MVP honors, at age five. At six, she secured her first league record, a mark in the 25-meter backstroke that still stands. She also dabbled in skiing, basketball, volleyball and soccer but gave up each one by age 11, fearing she would injure herself for her favorite sport.
Franklin’s height is natural — her father stands 6-2; her paternal grandmother, 5-11; and her grandfather, 6-4 — but she didn’t always consider it an asset. In first grade, she had a severe crush on a boy, who told one of her friends, “She’s too tall.”
“I went home that day, I was so upset,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m too tall.”
Her parents bought her the book, “Big Girl in the Middle,” by 6-3 volleyball player and model Gabrielle Reece. Even so, the social issues didn’t disappear. Searching for shoes, especially stylish dress pairs for dances or events, becomes a “totally miserable experience,” she said.
“As I got older, there were times I felt a little bit out of place,” Franklin said. “You sort of feel like the awkward, gangly kid, you’re sort of looking down [on everyone]. But I have grown to appreciate my height so much.”
Any swimming coach, or student of the sport, will tell you that the body does not make the swimmer. Plenty of strong, long, flexible athletes never master the art of moving smoothly through the water and routinely get trounced at weekend meets across the nation by less physically imposing athletes with good form. Other sports might be equally reliant on correct technique, coaches say, but none could possibly exceed swimming’s requirement for technical proficiency.
Yet among the very elite, size matters. A big body transforms a capable swimmer into a formidable one. A lengthy torso acts like the hull of a boat. Long arms provide more leverage to shovel water out of the way; Phelps’s wing span, like Franklin’s, exceeds his height by three inches (6-feet-7 to 6-feet-4). For the average person, the measurements are equal.
Franklin’s hand measures 8.5 inches from her longest finger to her wrist; that’s not quite as long as 7-6 former NBA center Yao Ming’s (about 10 inches) but it allows her to palm a basketball and paddle water more effectively than most. Her size 13 feet are an anomaly: For every 1,000 pairs of women’s shoes sold in the United States, only about 3 are that large, according to one footwear marketing survey. Phelps himself wears size-14 shoes; Australian freestyle legend Ian Thorpe, who retired after the 2004 Olympics but is trying to mount a comeback, sports size 17 feet.
Such physical gifts amplify a swimmer’s technique — rewarding the good and discouraging the bad. A long limb held in the wrong place underwater will produce a large amount of drag; moving it properly, however, should produce a correspondingly large force forward. Such tangible instant rewards can be far more effective than a nagging coach; by all indications, Franklin has had that since birth.
“There’s definitely a huge contribution from being natural in the water,” said Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s director of biomechanics. “A lot of our best sort of discover technique on their own.”
She’s benefited from another unintended advantage: She’s grown up in a city nearly a mile above sea level. The thin air at high-altitudes is so sought after for endurance-building purposes that many athletes sleep in high-altitude tents or move to high-altitude training sites — though the ideal is considered 8,000 feet or above, not the 5,500 feet at which Franklin resides.
At the world championships in Shanghai last August, she won gold medals in the 200 backstroke, 400 medley relay and 4x200 freestyle relay. She claimed a silver in the 4x100 relay and a bronze in the 50 backstroke, which is not an Olympic event.
During that 10-day event, she “reminded me of me as a 15-year-old,” Phelps, a 14-time Olympic medalist, said during a recent interview in Baltimore. “She’s probably one of the best female swimmers I’ve ever seen. She can do anything.”
Like Phelps, Franklin shows enormous versatility; she has qualified for the Olympic trials in 9 of 13 events. (She and her longtime coach Todd Schmitz say they haven’t yet settled on her competition program.)
Franklin has some of the prettiest strokes you will see, but she says she’s not terribly interested in the science behind her success. She saves her intellectual acumen for classes such as Advanced Placement American History, where she sat hunched over a standard-issue school desk on a recent weekday morning. She absorbed a lecture on the assassination of former Secretary of State William H. Seward with astonishing alertness for someone who had undergone a full-bore workout before arriving to school just after 8 a.m.
After her last class and a hastily consumed brown-bag lunch, she chatted briefly with friends before ducking out a back door and walking across the campus to the school’s bubble-covered pool for more laps.
”One of the main reasons Missy is good is she really enjoys it,” said her high school coach, Nick Frasersmith. “For her, racing is a lot of fun. Just being in the water is fun.”
Despite her earning potential, Franklin said, she hasn’t been tempted to turn pro, though Phelps signed with Speedo at 15 and many other prodigies made similar moves.
But the way Franklin sees it, her amateur life offers moments too precious to pawn off; why would she change a thing just because the Olympic Games are on the horizon? With the body she has, she should have plenty of time to capitalize.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when I haven’t had fun in the water,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if the love for it will ever stop, but I don’t think it will.”