D.A. Franklin grew up afraid of the water, so she wanted to make sure her only child overcame that anxiety early. Without any more thought than that, she signed up for “Mommy and Me” swim lessons when Melissa Franklin was six months old.
That’s when things first got strange.
In a pool filled with crying babies, screaming babies, or others clutching their mothers’s necks, D.A. Franklin’s baby wanted to swim. And Melissa Franklin disappeared into the water with eyes wide open and a grin on her face.
“You’d see her underwater, smiling with her big green eyes open,” D.A. Franklin said. “It was just incredible.”
And it was also just the beginning. At 2 1⁄2, she was snorkeling in the ocean. By five, she excelled with the neighborhood swim team, and at eight, she insisted on swimming in Grand Lake near her family’s home in Aurora, Colo., even when it was rimmed with snow and ice.
At 11, she could dominate high school kids; at 12, she made her first Olympic Trials cuts; and now, at 14, she will swim alongside Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and other stars as the youngest athlete named to USA Swimming’s “Duel in the Pool” team that will compete in Manchester, England, in mid-December.
“All I remember, is I just loved swimming more than anything,” Franklin said. “I loved being in the water more than on land because I was so comfortable in it.”
Franklin, whose birthday is in May, holds 10 national age-group records, and the times she posted in the 100-meter freestyle (54.03 seconds) and 200 backstroke (2 minutes, 9.16 seconds) at this summer’s U.S. junior championships in Federal Way, Wash., each stand as the third-fastest by any American woman this year.
“If she was 18 and doing this stuff, it would be a lot more normal,” said her father, Dick Franklin.
The Franklins, at least, have gotten used to a sort of paranormal when their daughter is near a body of water. Though she excelled at other sports — soccer, basketball and volleyball among them — she decided years ago she preferred spending the bulk of her free time underwater.
Todd Schmitz, who has coached her since she was eight, said Franklin stood out from the first time he saw her. He said she brought a great natural feel for the water to the pool, always craved racing and, he added, “her size doesn’t hurt, either.”
She stands six-feet-even and wears size-13 shoes.
She credits her father for her height and athletic acumen, and both parents for enthusiastic support. Dick Franklin, who is 6-2, was drafted by the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts in 1969, but went back to school to get his MBA and has since worked as an executive at firms including Head Sports USA and Reebok USA. Her mother, who stands 5-6 and says she learned to swim “by not drowning,” was a family doctor who now works as a consultant for the state of Colorado for the developmentally disabled.
Both plan to attend the Manchester meet, as well as a pair of World Cup events next week in Stockholm, Sweden, and Berlin, Germany. Franklin will compete at those as a member of the U.S. youth national team.
“I do believe this is a great way for Missy to progress,” said National Youth Team Head Coach Jack Roach. “It’s not the kind of stressful situation she would face if on a world championship or Olympic team. It’s kind of almost the perfect step. We spent a lot of time discussing whether she was ready or not.”
Roach credited Schmitz with his level-headed approach to Franklin’s advancement thus far. Schmitz advised her to compete at the U.S. junior championships this past summer rather than the U.S. senior nationals — where she might have qualified for the world championship team, but also might have been overwhelmed. Franklin dominated at the meet in Federal Way, winning all five individual events she entered and setting meet records in each.
Just like other stars who have emerged during the technical-suit era, Franklin will have to continue to prove herself when the suits are finally banned in January. (She donned an Italian-made Jaked at the junior championships.) But of the national age-group records she holds, three were set prior to last season, and Roach figures she has the right mindset to meet the challenges ahead.
“Missy doesn’t understand that there are limits,” Roach said. “She doesn’t believe in limits. She has that youthful attitude in the sport, where every time she jumps in the water she expects to improve, and she does.”
Since their daughter’s earliest days in the pool, Melissa Franklin’s parents heard she would one day be in the Olympics. They say they have steadfastly refused to get caught up in any of the talk. Dick Franklin had seen plenty of pushy parents from years in the sporting goods industry.
“I said to my wife, ‘Shoot me if I ever get like that,’” he said. “This has got to be what she wants.”
She says she really wants it. Franklin was the youngest swimmer invited to USA Swimming training camp at the U.S. Olympic Committee Training Center in Colorado Springs last summer, where she roomed with North Dakota high-school phenom Dagny Knutson and trained alongside Phelps, Katie Hoff and other stars, and under U.S. Olympic team coach Bob Bowman.
“She’s the real deal,” Bowman said. “The training we were doing was much harder than anything she had ever done, and she had no problem whatsoever doing it. And she wanted to do it.”
It was just a few weeks ago that Schmitz got a call from Roach, informing him that USA Swimming officials wanted Franklin to attend the Duel in the Pool — if she and her parents were comfortable with it.
“I was in complete shock,” Melissa Franklin said. “I could not believe it.”
It didn’t take long for the family to decide that Franklin, with her parents in tow, would go.
“I’m just so excited,” she said. “It’s going to be such a great experience for me. I’m so excited to go out there and swim with so many athletes I have looked up to all of these years.”
All this as a newly minted freshman at Regis Jesuit High who also has started regular two-a-day workouts for the first time. She said plans to juggle swimming for her high school team with meets for her club, the Colorado Stars, and her burgeoning national team obligations.
“My big, long-term goal would be the 2012 Olympics,” Franklin said. “But my goal for right now is to just keep having fun with it.”