(AP) — If Missy Franklin’s mind wanders as she sits in her advanced placement literature class this week in suburban Denver, the 16-year-old swimmer will have plenty of summer memories to entertain her.
Maybe she’ll remember winning three gold medals at her first world championships in China. Or setting two American records in the process. Or being presented with a $20,000 check as the top points earner on the grand prix circuit, beating out the likes of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
“I had the best summer I could ever ask for,” she said recently.
Franklin emerged as a budding star of the U.S. team, someone who can swim multiple events and anchor the pressure-packed relays even though she’s barely learned to drive.
“All of us are so impressed with her,” 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin said. “She has the maturity to handle the pressure.”
Three years ago, Franklin was an unknown 13-year-old and the second-youngest swimmer at the U.S. Olympic trials, competing in three events.
At next year’s trials, expect Franklin’s name to be all over the heat sheets as she plans to qualify in the maximum 13 events. She won’t swim them all; she just loves the challenge of achieving such an audacious goal.
Sounds like a female Phelps, right?
“It’s hard to compare yourself to someone who is that unbelievable at what he does,” Franklin said, “so right now I’m just going to stick to swimming my races and just being me and having fun with it.”
Phelps certainly noticed her in Shanghai, saying, “She’s never tired, she’s always swimming fast. She’s a stud.”
At 6-foot-1, with big hands and size 13 feet, Franklin cuts an imposing figure on the blocks. She’s got a catchy nickname — ‘Missile Missy’ — bestowed by her dad four years ago. Out of the water, she has a can’t-miss smile revealing a mouth full of braces.
“I’m trying to get them off as soon as possible,” she said. “It’s just really annoying.”
That’s about the only thing that gets the relentlessly upbeat Franklin down. She cracked up her teammates in China with her excited approach to swimming the morning prelims, her dancing ability at training camp, and her bubbly personality.
“It’s unbelievably refreshing to have her energy on this team,” Coughlin said.
Franklin thrived on being accepted by her teammates, whose gold-medal standards she hopes to live up to at the London Olympics.
“When you have this little annoying 16-year-old thrown in the mix of all these incredible swimmers, it’s really special that they would take the time to talk to me and wish me good luck and say congratulations,” she said.
Franklin followed up her five-medal performance at worlds by winning her first two national titles days after returning from China earlier this month. Her winning time of 53.63 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle was fifth-fastest in the world this year and would have earned her a bronze medal in the event in Shanghai.
Her club coach, Todd Schmitz, gets as much of a workout on deck as Franklin does in the pool. He jumps up and down during her races as he urges her on.
“The best thing about it is it kind of feels like he’s swimming the race with you,” she said, “which I always love because I know that he’s probably going to be just as tired as I am when I get out.”
There are times when Franklin is the one calming Schmitz down on her way to the blocks.
“Sometimes she looks at me and says, `Coach, it’s OK,”‘ he said. “She’s really good at controlling her emotions.”
The memories of repeated trips to the awards podium and hearing the national anthem will stoke Franklin’s motivation during the months of training that lie ahead.
“Just thinking about that moment gets my heart pumping and my adrenaline racing,” she said. “If you ever have a hard set or a hard practice, it’s so good to think back about how happy you were and just really help push yourself through it.”
For now, she’s focused on her junior year at Regis Jesuit, a private Catholic high school in Aurora, Colo. Franklin didn’t accept the grand prix prize money so she could retain her college eligibility.
Besides AP literature, there’s an AP U.S/world history class, along with two electives and French that she’ll take online.
“It’s going to be tough,” she said. “I’m just going to have fun and try to keep everything under control.”
She can’t wait to test out her newly licensed driving skills, too. She plans to keep her car keys on the green-and-blue lanyard on which her credential hung at worlds.
Franklin gave her two golds from nationals to the kids who carried the baskets with the swimmers’ gear from the blocks.
“They loved it, so that’s really sweet for me to see,” she said.
With Phelps headed for retirement after London, the United States will be in need of its next big star in the pool. With her versatility, maturity and charisma, Franklin seems more than capable of filling the bill.
“She’s what you’re supposed to be,” said Jack Bauerle, who coached the U.S. women at worlds. “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.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)