U.S. turning to Missy Franklin after Michael Phelps' retirement following the 2012 Olympics

Thursday, June 28, 2012
Missy Franklin

With Michael Phelps headed for retirement after the London Olympics, the United States will need its next big star in the pool.

Paging Missy Franklin.

Franklin, a 17-year-old from Colorado with the can't-miss smile (now braces-free), maturity and charisma, seems more than capable of answering the call.

Franklin is 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 already has taken notice of Franklin. This summer, the rest of the world will, too.

Missy Franklin starts in the women's 100-meter backstroke preliminaries Tuesday at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb. (David J. Phillip ~ Associated Press)

But Franklin isn't completely comfortable with being tabbed as her sport's next big thing.

"It's an honor, but it's still hard to believe, and I don't really think of myself like that," Franklin said. "I still see myself as a girl that just gets to go swim every day with all of her friends."

Franklin will be doing plenty of that at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which are ongoing this week in Omaha, Neb.

She's entered in five events -- the 100- and 200-meter 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 considered for the relays in London.

Franklin enters the eight-day meet 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."

Changing of guard?

One of the meet's most compelling matchups will come in the 100 back, with Franklin taking on 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin is the top seed with a time of 59.12 seconds; Franklin is second at 59.18.

They also will square off in the 100 free, in which 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.

And Franklin looks up to Coughlin, 29, as 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 two 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 said. "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."

This time, she enters the trials as the world champion in the 200 backstroke -- and 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.

Passing up big bucks

Franklin, who will be a senior at Regis Jesuit High School in suburban Denver this fall, is the prize recruit among college coaches eager to boost their programs.

She and her parents remain adamant that she will swim in college, which is why she has turned down six figures in prize money as well as untold thousands more in endorsements. Her parents have fended off agents who have suggested Franklin forgo college to rake in the big bucks now.

"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, about 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."

The family has resisted suggestions that Franklin relocate to California, Florida or Texas so she can work with a big-name coach, electing instead to stay with Todd Schmitz, who has coached her since she was 7.

But it's not all swimming for Franklin, who recently lived the fantasy of many teen 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," Franklin said, "so being in Vogue was a little surreal and over the top."

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