Missy Franklin remains same genuine, bubbly self despite huge success in London

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

DENVER – It's 6:20 a.m., and Missy Franklin is immersed in damage control. She is licking the side of a leaking chocolate milk box.

The five-time Olympic medalist has just finished her morning workout in a dingy concrete slab of an outdoor pool. It comes with a single creature comfort: a radio playing classic rock. While Eddie Money was warbling "Two Tickets to Paradise" into the chilly pre-dawn air, Missy and her Colorado Stars teammates were churning through the Lowry Pool water.

Now, dressed in Early Morning Swimmer Comfortwear – black Uggs, pink sweatpants, blue sweatshirt, hair in characteristic bun – it was time for a quick nutrition blast of organic chocolate milk. But there is risk involved.

If you squeeze the box at all, the milk shoots up through the straw. The 18-year-old gave it a slight crunch, and now in mid-interview she is trying to clean up the resulting eruption without the assistance of a napkin or paper towel.

"They're so touchy," Missy says. "I'm sorry, what was your question?"

And with that comes the signature laugh America fell in love with last summer from London.

If you want a status report on Missy Franklin one year after she became a bubbly, breakout superstar and as she heads into the World Championship Trials this week in Indianapolis, this June morning sums it up succinctly.

The genuine Olympian is still laughing out loud, and often. Still swimming fast. Still having a blast. Still as wholesome and uncomplicated as a box of chocolate milk.

Oh, life has gotten complicated around her. There has been some spilled milk to deal with. You win four gold medals and the world you grew up in is altered.

A Christmas shopping trip to the mall ended after 90 frenzied minutes with dozens of autographs given, dozens of pictures taken and zero presents bought. A trip through the Starbucks drive-thru becomes a photo op for star-struck baristas.

"This is who I am now," Missy says, acknowledging the fame and scrutiny thrust upon her. "That was a little hard getting used to, but it's so worth it."

You win four gold medals and then try to do what almost every American kid your age is doing: pick a college to attend. Suddenly, total strangers want to tell you what a mistake you're making by not turning pro and reaping millions in endorsements. Suddenly, everyone is an expert on your life choices and wants to critique your plan – two years of swimming at California, then turning pro in 2015 in anticipation of the Olympics the following year in Rio de Janeiro.

"She told us, 'It's too soon to make swimming my job,' " says Missy's dad, Dick. "That phrase pretty well did it for her mom (D.A.) and I. Nobody likes to give up $4 [million] to $8 million, but we thought it's the right thing for Missy."

You win four gold medals and then try returning to your Regis Jesuit High School swim team. Suddenly, people from other schools are getting cranky, saying an Olympian has no place in high school sports. Suddenly, the competition is too much for some swimmers and tickets to the state meet are too scarce for some parents.

"It killed me," Missy says. "I loved swimming high school. I'm a total people pleaser, even people I don't know. I love to make people happy, and when something like that happens, I don't know what to do. … But looking back on it, I'm so happy I did it."

Despite the tumult of fairly sudden fame, the girl at the center of the swirl is fundamentally the same person. Appearances on late-night talk shows, modeling shoots and guest-of-honor appearances at sporting events have not altered Missy Franklin's demeanor, disposition or DNA.

"Most famous people – politicians, actors, athletes – it's an act," said Missy's Colorado Stars coach, Todd Schmitz. "They act one way in public and a different way in private.

"There's no act with Missy. You're never going to catch her out of the act, because it's not an act."

The first act of the Genuine Olympian's new life was a return to the old life. A painting party.

After London, the Franklins had flown home to Colorado late on a Monday. On Tuesday, they flew to Los Angeles so Missy could appear on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. On Wednesday, they flew home, exhausted.

That's when Missy asked her parents if she could have a dozen friends over to paint overalls. Regis High School was playing a season-opening football game, and the kids wanted to custom-paint some white overalls for it.

Michael Phelps returned from his grand Beijing triumph to a publicized bong hit. Missy Franklin returned from London to paint overalls. Pass the chocolate milk.

The fatigued Franklins recoiled from their initial dread, recognized the importance of the request and said yes. Yes to the chaos and the paint splatters on the furniture and all over the backyard. Yes to the ongoing breathless sprint.

The sooner the re-entry into the life Missy had always known and thrived in, the better.

"We've tried everything we could to keep her a normal kid," D.A. says.

Missy arrived on the international stage at a young age, but it was an entirely organic development. There has been no gaming the system by the Franklins. No altering the natural timetable. No maneuvering or manipulating to get ahead. No shuffling through coaches and teams in search of the magic combination for maximum achievement.

Missy started with the Heritage Green Gators, the neighborhood pool across the street from her house. She'd been seduced by the big tent and the noise and the excitement of the meets, and marched over one day to ask if she could join the team. The coaches told her to come back next year, when she was 5.

"She was a Gator before she was anything," Dick Franklin says.

She was still a Gator during the 2008 Olympic Trials, which phenom Missy qualified for at age 13. She made Schmitz a nervous wreck by competing in the small-time summer club championships just weeks before the biggest swim meet in the United States. She just loved being part of the team.

Schmitz has been her primary coach since she began year-round swimming at seven, and the Stars have been her primary team. As she became a dominant age-group swimmer, others in the sport urged the Franklins to consider moving to a swimming hotbed like California or Texas. The family resisted the urge to search for something better.

The reasoning was as simple as it gets. If you can shatter records within the context of a happy and comfortable life, why change it?

"It's working," Missy says. "I love my team, love my coach, love Colorado. I love where I am. The grass is so green right in front of us, why look for it greener somewhere else?"

The anti-Missy announced himself to the world earlier this month. Fourteen-year-old Michael Andrew became the youngest American swimmer to turn professional.

Andrew may have a phenomenal future as a swimmer. He is big (a reported 6-foot-4) and has set a slew of national age-group records – as Missy once did. But he's never been a top-eight finisher at a national meet, which means there is much yet to prove.

"What is his name? Michael?" Missy asks, unwittingly indicating what little impact he has made to date on the national stage.

His formative experience could not be any more different than Missy's. Whereas she thrives on team and school, Andrew is home-schooled by his mom and individually coached by his dad. Whereas she has been slow to go pro, Andrew has broken new ground.

His first sponsor is a supplement company. Given the rocky history of supplements and drug testing in Olympic sports, that caused some in the swimming community to cringe.

So the Michael Andrew experiment carries with it a few warning signs. Just don't ask the eternally diplomatic Missy to enunciate them.

"The one thing I've learned, you can't make everyone happy," she says. "It's all different for everyone. You need to do what's best for you, and if that's what's best for him, I wish him the best of luck with that."

What's best for the Genuine Olympian on this June morning is a trip with some of her Colorado Stars teammates to the Village Inn. They have free pie on Wednesdays.

During practice, Missy has her own lane while about 30 teammates utilize the other five lanes. Schmitz pays 90 percent of his attention to her, letting assistant coach Erik Eikenbary handle the rest of the Stars.

Missy does a separate workout because she is tapering for the World Trials, which start Tuesday in Indy. She is seeded first in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes and the 100 freestyle, and second in the 200 free.

Tapering swimmers can be borderline giddy. After months of beating their bodies with hard workout sets, coaches back off to bring a rested athlete into a big meet. This is Missy's longest period of rest since last summer.

Eikenbary listens to her laughter and says, "They should make a Geico commercial: happier than a swimmer during taper."

"I LOVE that," Missy says, before splashing down the lane at a relaxed pace.

Late in practice, the Lowry Pool radio is playing "Rapture" by Blondie. Missy is out of the water, preparing to work on her starts, when she breaks into an enthusiastic dance. This is the 6-1 Amazon girl who amazed and amused her Olympic teammates with her moves, leaving Schmitz in stitches.

"I don't know whether I'm a good dancer," she says, "but I love to dance."

There is the laugh again. Although so much has changed around her, nothing has changed on the inside of Missy Franklin.

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