Able to stay golden

Teammate. Friend. Collegiate competitor. Before she goes pro, Missy Franklin wants to seize every opportunity.

After her success in the 2012 Summer Games, Missy Franklin decided to hold off on a career as a professional swimmer in order to first experience life as a college swimmer.

The new gear got Missy Franklin excited.

The freshman was already nervous for her first NCAA swimming and diving championships last spring, where she hoped to fulfill a dream by helping the University of California, Berkeley, win its third national title in four years. Then she saw the new backpack, part of the gear provided to California’s championship qualifiers. And the new track and practice suits. And the new two-piece and the gray boots she described as adorable. Best of all, there was a new swim cap to wear. She was thrilled to see her name printed on it.

Missy Franklin felt comfortable in the water from the time her mother, DA (above, with Missy), enrolled the two of them in a swim class when her only daughter was 6 months old.

“It is SO COOL!” Franklin wrote with youthful bliss in her journal. “I’m getting so excited! It’s hard to contain it!”

Franklin wrote those memories in black ink on college-ruled notebook paper, printed artfully in handwriting that seems imprinted straight from a word processor. She then slipped each page into a plastic sleeve and added them to a blue three-ring binder that preserves her memories. It already included artifacts collected during the Pac-12 championship: notes and inspirational quotes her coaches had taped to her hotel room door. She included a copy of the Pac-12 meet schedule and letters from her roommate, sophomore Kristen Vredeveld, cheering her on. Each was free of creases and other blemishes, protected as if they will one day be valuable collectibles.

By the time Missy entered her teen years, DA and her husband, Dick (middle), were being told their daughter had special talent.

And they are valuable – each of these fleeting memories she has scraped to save. They’re moments college freshmen, at an age when time is infinite, might typically forget within weeks. But for Franklin, Pac-12 and NCAA championship meets will be only memories by the end of this spring as a new and exciting period of her life begins.

She will turn professional at that time – a step publicly anticipated for nearly three years – and start preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Franklin already holds five Olympic medals and 11 World Championships medals, nine of them gold. And since she was 15, endorsement offers have arrived from companies who see her neighborly charm as the perfect match for their products.

She turned them all down – leaving millions of dollars on the table – to get a taste of a college career. And for these two years, Franklin is embracing even the inconspicuous moments.

“This is such a special time in my life, where I get to do what I love every single day, and I get to swim and wake up and go be with my friends and with my team,” Franklin said. “It really does give me that opportunity to walk around and just be a normal student, which I love.”

Franklin’s life has known only about six months without swimming. Her mother, DA Franklin, who grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was always nervous around the water and never learned to swim well. Determined to steer her daughter away from her fears, DA enrolled the two of them in a mother-daughter swimming class when Missy was 6 months old.

Success came early for Franklin, but she never lost her childlike side. She is seen goofing off at a meet.

Babies wailed all around them; Missy grinned under the water.

From that point Missy veered toward water anytime she came near it. She enrolled in swim lessons by age 2 and snorkeled in the ocean when she was 3. At age 4 she watched a swim team at the neighborhood pool and wondered why she couldn’t join. She had to wait just one more year, Missy was told.

“Well, that’s not fair,” she replied. “I can swim better than any of them.”

Nobody could doubt that now. Within a few years, volleyball, soccer and basketball – even short runs in figure skating and gymnastics – were cast to the sidelines so Missy could focus on swimming. She earned her qualifying times for the national championships as a 12-year-old. By age 13, she was at the Olympic Trials.

Her parents, Dick and DA, started hearing from former Olympians and master swimmers that their daughter possessed special talent. To do right by her, Dick and DA were told, they should move from their home outside Denver and relocate to California or Texas or Florida – states with many more Olympic-sized pools and the caliber of coaching that could prepare a talent like Missy for the success that awaited.

Showing off her Team USA jacket while still sporting her high school T-shirt.

And that’s where her story turns, where it begins to sound like the Missy Franklin folklore that has followed her ever since. Her determination to balance her priorities among family, friends and team became as much of her charm as her smile and innocent lust for life. She and her parents resisted the temptation to relocate. Missy kept swimming for Regis Jesuit High School. And she resisted the temptations that followed her sudden emergence on the international stage after winning five medals – including three gold – at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai.

“Things are going to change forever now,” Frank Busch, the U.S. team’s swimming coach at the time, told her after that performance in China. Missy shrugged off the concept as she advanced to win four more gold medals at the 2012 Olympics in London and six golds at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, setting a record for most ever by a woman.

As Missy became the face of American swimming, kids started showing up at her house for Halloween dressed as Missy Franklin. A child pulled a discarded backpack from the Franklins’ trash, knocked on their front door and asked Missy to sign it. More than 6,000 letters arrived at the family home; Missy responded to each one.

Posing with her team after winning the state championship..

“You know, only Santa Claus and Missy get away with just their name and their country,” the Franklins’ postman joked as he delivered their mail in buckets with letters simply addressed, “Missy Franklin, USA.”

It meant another conversation was necessary. The Franklins started turning down endorsement offers when Missy was 15. And by retaining her amateur status, she was leaving significant amounts of prize money at the podium.

“Missy, do you realize that in two weekends you made the same amount of money that I made in this last year?” DA, a family physician working part-time at that point in order to help manage Missy’s career, asked when she and Dick sat down to discuss the implications of their daughter’s amateur status. “I really don’t think she understood how much that money was, what she could do with it.”

But Missy had other priorities. Yes, she was driven to succeed as a swimmer. But she was driven in other areas, as well.

Her GPA exceeded 4.0 until her senior year at Regis, when the demands of her international swimming schedule forced her to routinely take exams independently in the principal’s office. She hung out with friends, went to school dances, giggled over Justin Bieber and competed in her high school swim meets – even when her success meant they were sometimes televised by ESPN.

Signing her first autograph, and posing with her team after winning the state championship.

Missy referred to that new life as her “new normal,” but her emphasis stayed on “normal.” She still wanted to swim in college, be part of a team and enjoy the part of swimming that was supposed to be fun without the income-impacting pressure of performance. So she and her parents agreed: Missy would swim in college for two years, then turn professional, begin accepting prize and endorsement money, and start training for the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“I still just wanted to enjoy swimming, and I wasn’t ready for it to be my job yet,” Missy said. “It has been my dream since I was little for swimming to be my job. That’s the coolest thing ever. But I wasn’t quite ready yet.”

On her recruiting visit to California – a month after her Olympic success landed her on national talk shows, in a spot appearance in the television series “Pretty Little Liars” and with an invitation to serve as grand marshal at the Fiesta Bowl – Missy was asked to say a few words about herself while observing a class. She introduced herself only as Missy and mentioned that she was being recruited for swimming.

“Wow, you must be good,” a freshman said when he approached after the class, naive to the identity of the Olympian before him. “Their swim team is really good here.”

The trip cast many impressions on Missy – learning about Berkeley’s academic challenges, having football and women’s basketball players approach as she stood on the Memorial Stadium turf before the season-opening football game. But for someone who bristles at being referred to as a celebrity, that moment of anonymity was both humorous and refreshing.

“I loved it,” Franklin said.

By late October, she was a Golden Bear.

Franklin describes the relationships she has developed with her teammates as the most valuable benefit of her time at California. “I really believe that this group of women is giving her a gift that is going to be more and more special as time goes on,” says Golden Bears coach Teri McKeever.

Despite her success in the Olympics and World Championships, Franklin sees team successes as equally important.

What Franklin gave up to be a college swimmer has always been part of her folklore, too. It’s hard, she acknowledged, to see from her perspective everything that was gained. During her literature class in the fall, Franklin read a poem about the wisdom people gain by leaving their comfort zones and making unfamiliar situations more familiar. The poem, she said, reflected her recent decisions.

Turning professional would have allowed her to stay at her parents’ home, 1,200 miles away. She could have remained where she was comfortable, where she knew everyone around her and where she knew what to expect. For all her international travels and successes, leaving for college and living on her own for the first time was – just as it is for most freshmen – an unnerving concept.

“That’s, I think, when you learn the most about yourself,” Franklin said. “Now, I’ve really been opened up to these things. I’m a little bit less sheltered, and I’m able to get a better grasp of things that are happening. That’s really helping me come into who I am and helping me figure out who I am and who I want to be.”

Lights, camera … fire alarm!

Featuring University of California, Berkeley, swimmer Missy Franklin in Champion’s winter cover story was a natural choice. She is the face of American swimming with a promising professional career ahead. Yet swimming in college was important enough that she was willing to forgo endorsement deals and prize money to experience it.

While the choice was obvious, we knew a photo shoot with a popular student-athlete for whom California already manages weekly media requests – both nationally and internationally – could be adventurous. We just didn’t predict how adventurous.

Realizing the demands on Franklin’s time, Champion approached the university the week after the swimming season ended in the spring. That provided a seven-month period to find a two-hour window for the shoot. Given Franklin’s international competition schedule with Team USA and her 17-credit-hour fall semester, we didn’t secure a date until mid-November, but that was no surprise.

We had anticipated that.

Then, despite all those months of planning, a full day of steady rain greeted us in drought-stricken California on the day of the shoot, blotting out our plans to capture a beautiful backdrop of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

But we had prepared for that possibility.

Our backup plan involved shooting inside California’s Memorial Stadium. But that plan got foiled because – we are not making this up – a convention connected to Polish-American Innovation Week had already reserved every floor of the football stadium meeting areas.

But hey, conflicts arise.

So we retreated to a concrete bunker of a side room that was as photogenic as a well-lit cave but was at least dry and available. We blew up the kiddie pool we brought, set up the camera lighting, laid out the rubber ducks and were all set to shoot as Missy stepped her first toe into the water.

Then the fire alarm sounded.

Oh, come on, Murphy. Give your law a rest, would you?

But Franklin laughed during the chaos. She smiled and talked about her classes and her experiences and made all the setbacks easy to work through. She giggled when she saw our kiddie pool. She grabbed the rubber ducks we laid out for the shoot and – squirting water from a pair of them – allowed the fun-loving 19-year-old in her to overshadow the Olympian as she cooed, “Duckies!”

Franklin pulled on a pair of frog-mask goggles and made funny faces at the camera. At times she struggled to hold a serious expression for more than a few seconds before belly laughing. And when we were finished, she thanked us and said she felt honored to be on Champion’s cover.

Our interactions with her reinforced our concept of shooting Franklin in a children’s pool – because behind this Olympic and world champion is a big kid savoring the opportunity to have fun in college before a career in swimming whisks her away to her dream job.

Yes, Franklin came to California to swim, and she will leave California’s program to swim professionally. But the two years in between have offered a chance to grow in her other interests. She moved into a dorm room. She learned to cook for herself. She developed a tight friendship with her freshman roommate. She dipped her toe into California’s diverse academic pool – her first semester included an integrative biology class on marine mammals. She crammed 17 credits into her fall schedule, including a class exploring how drugs chemically affect the brain, in hopes of declaring her psychology major this spring.

She now equates getting an A on an exam to getting a personal best in the pool – a mentality that blends in on a campus that employs eight Nobel laureates and 230 members of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“I know that, one day, swimming is going to be over,” Franklin said. “I’m not going to be swimming my whole life, and I want to have that education that’s going to lead me to my dream job, where I can then move on to something else that I’m really passionate about.”

There have also been subtle lessons learned along the way. Sure, Franklin has been successful in the pool – she set an American record last spring while winning her first NCAA championship in the 200-yard freestyle. But she has learned to handle disappointment graciously, too: Her second-place finish in the 500-yard freestyle to the University of Georgia’s Brittany MacLean – a Canadian Olympian – made as many headlines as her record-setting victory, while California finished third at the NCAA championships, dashing Missy’s dream of winning a team title.

But those are the experiences that made California head coach Teri McKeever predict when Missy signed that the two years she would spend as a college swimmer would be transformative. “If she earns a degree and broadens her 17-year-old person,” McKeever, also the head coach for Team USA at the 2012 Olympics, told the San Jose Mercury News in 2012, “she’s going to be more marketable and make a bigger difference in the world.”

Since then, McKeever has watched Franklin and Vredeveld go from being new roommates to agreeing to be each other’s bridesmaids when they marry. She has seen a young woman embrace her self-proclaimed “goofball” side and jump enthusiastically into a dance session alongside her teammates with no lack of self-esteem, celebrating an opportunity to be a 19-year-old.

“I think she’s figuring out who she is, not who other people want her to be,” McKeever said. “I really believe that this group of women is giving her a gift that is going to be more and more special as time goes on.”

The time that remains is short, though. Like the seniors on campus, Franklin feels the days racing past her. Except she will get to experience these moments for only half as long as her peers.

Not everything will change about her life when she goes pro. She plans to stay at California to train and continue progressing toward her degree, which will keep her close to her team. That support network and familiarity will provide an ideal base to launch her career. But after this spring, for the first time, swimming will focus more on individual success than the team’s. Franklin admitted it’s bittersweet.

So she has recorded the smallest memories, storing them in her binder and printing them in her journal, hoping to someday share them with her kids. Franklin wrote about the posters, balloons and cards the Aquajets Swim Team in Minneapolis gave her team at last year’s NCAA championship. And she wrote about the tiny stuffed orange bird named Tangerine she received from her coaches to remind her to have fun at the championship meet.

“She’s so cute!” Franklin chirped. She printed her final thoughts on the NCAA meet onto the notebook paper, apologizing to her future self for not having the time to write more. Then Franklin slipped it into a plastic sleeve, placed it at the back of the blue binder and closed the book.