By: Jerry Brown Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile
In the water, racing against the clock, with swimmers in the lanes next to her, 14-year-old Missy Franklin is on her own. It’s up to her to perform.
And “Missy steers the ship” when it comes to deciding her future as a swimmer, says mother and Number 1 cheerleader DA Franklin (pronounced Dee-A).
Missy readily accepts responsibility for her swimming career. “I started swimming (competitively) when I was five,” she says. “You need to work hard for anything you want to accomplish. I just had fun with it, working as hard as I could and having as much fun with it as I could. It’s always fun for me. And it always will be.”
She’s also the first to acknowledge that a lot of help and support go into her considerable success in the pool. The help comes from coach Todd Schmitz, parents Dick and DA Franklin, her Colorado STARS swim teammates and the faculty and her friends at Regis High School, among others.
Schmitz has been Missy’s swimming coach for eight years. And he tops her list of people helping her succeed in the pool.
“Todd helps me so much,” Missy says. “He’s always with me. It feels like he’s swimming the race with me. He’s always cheering with me no matter what. Todd always pushes me to be my best. If it’s a hard (practice) set, he’ll be there to tell me that I can do it, that it’s worth it. He’s so supportive. I feel so comfortable around him.”
“One of the unique things about Missy’s relationship with Todd is that they’re both really young,” says Dick Franklin, Missy’s father and other Number 1 cheerleader. “Todd is 30 and they’ve been working together for eight years. They’ve matured together.”
Missy’s parents leave the coaching to Schmitz, and the Franklins are unanimous in wanting it that way.
“If my parents ever coached me, I probably would get slower,” Missy says with a smile as mom and dad look on, nodding in agreement. “They’ve never pressured me. They’re so supportive. But they let me make my own decisions. I really appreciate that.”
Those decisions include the choice three days a week to climb out of bed at 4 a.m. to make it to two hours of swimming practice before heading off to freshman classes at Regis High School in the suburbs of Denver.
“If she doesn’t get up, she doesn’t go to practice and then she has to answer to her coaches not to us,” Dick says. “We don’t get her out of bed.”
Teenagers are notorious for staying up late and sleeping in whenever they can. Some experts say it’s part of their biological body clocks. So how does Missy get herself out of bed and ready for practice?
“All my friends are in the same boat,” she says. “They’re rolling out of bed at 4 a.m. too. I know that when I wake up. And it’s fun to go to practice and be with everyone.”
Actually, it’s not always Missy who has trouble getting up before sunrise.
“There are times when I feel so tired that I don’t want to get up,” DA says. “I’ll be exhausted and praying that Missy won’t get up because I want to go back to sleep. But she gets up.” And that means either mom or dad does, too. One of them has to serve as chauffeur. Missy’s still too young to make the 10-mile drive to practice and school on her own.
An Important Triangle
So, being a competitive swimmer is Missy’s choice. But making it happen is a group endeavor. And the principal players – swimmer, coach, parents – are all clear about their roles.
“Cooperation and communication are important,” DA says. She describes the relationship among Missy, coach and parents as “an important triangle. Part of our role as parents is to back off and let the coach do his job and let Missy do her job.”
There’s no “stage mother” in either of Missy’s parents – pushing her to succeed because of their dreams or ambitions.
“I saw a lot of that in the tennis world and sneaker world,” says Dick, a former senior executive of Reebok and Head Sport. “It was ugly. I told DA to shoot me if I ever get like that.”
“As parents,” DA says, “we become involved when it’s a matter of illness – if she’s too sick to go to practice. That hasn’t happened very often.”
And, DA adds, “we become involved if there’s a school issue – if her grades started slipping, for example.” There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that. Academics are high on Missy’s – and her parents’ – list of priorities.
Missy’s parents and coach work well together, Dick says. For example, they questioned a trip to the Junior National Championships in Columbus, Ohio, in December because they felt there was too much going on that month – a trip to Manchester, England, for the Duel in the Pool between a USA national team that included Missy and Europe’s best swimmers plus final exams for Missy’s first semester at Regis. All this after just getting back from the World Cup Competition in Stockholm and Berlin.
“She missed eight days of school while she was in Europe,” Dick says. “We just felt a trip to Columbus would be too much. Todd really wanted her to be there to support the team but he understood completely and supported the decision.”
In addition to missing class, Missy ended up taking her final exams later than her classmates because she was out of town. Her teachers worked with Missy and her parents to allow that to happen. “Regis has been incredible,” Missy says. “They’re so supportive.”
Regis promised when Missy enrolled, to work with her and her parents so she wouldn’t have to choose between swimming and academics, DA says. “There was a part of me that said ‘let’s wait and see what happens.’ But they’ve lived up to their word.”
Just as there’s no “stage mother” in Missy’s parents, there doesn’t seem to be much teenage rebellion in Missy.
“I’ve learned over the years that my coaches and my parents are so much more experienced at life than I am,” she says. “Like when my parents tell me to wear a coat to keep from getting cold and I don’t want to and I get cold. That’s just beginning to sink in. If I just listen to them, it won’t happen.”
“Does Missy always listen to everything the first time? Of course not,” Schmitz says. “She’s still a 14-year-old kid and she’s like any other athlete. But Missy’s very coachable.”
Already six feet tall with size 13 feet, Missy has the ideal build for a competitive swimmer, which undoubtedly contributes to her already considerable success.
She’s also a naturally gifted athlete – just like her parents.
“We had her on skis when she was three,” DA says. “She was skiing blacks when she was eight.” Missy’s also participated in gymnastics, soccer, basketball and volleyball – and done well at all of them.
“Whatever she’s done, she’s assumed accountability and responsibility for herself,” DA says. “She decided when to stop gymnastics, soccer, skiing, basketball and volleyball. She loves skiing. But she decided that one slip, one mistake could mean being done with swimming for a year. So, we haven’t been on a mountain for three or four years. She thought about doing volleyball in addition to swimming in high school. But she decided she couldn’t do both.”
Dick Franklin’s an avid diver, and in years past that often meant family vacations someplace warm near an ocean. Not anymore.
“We haven’t done Hawaii for Christmas in a while,” Dick says. “Everything we do now is either attached to one end of a meet or another. The swimming very much shapes our travel and vacation plans.”
“They all have a pattern of wanting it,” he says. “They start very early. They know there’s no shortcut. They know you have to put in the time and make a lot of sacrifices. That comes from within.”
But the Franklins are hard pressed to pick the moment when Missy decided to become a competitive swimmer or when their lives changed as a result. It just happened.
“It’s always been a natural choice to support Missy as she grew in swimming,” Dick says. “It was just a natural evolution of how we live our life. There was a time when we would normally be on vacation over the holidays somewhere warm down by the beach. Now vacations are traveling to swim meets. There are just so many things you can do and just so many days you can take off.”
DA Franklin is a physician who has traded in her family-medicine practice to become a consultant for the State of Colorado working with the developmentally disabled. Her consulting role gives her the flexibility she needs to attend Missy’s swim meets. She’s missed only one of the hundreds of meets Missy has competed in over the years. She was running a fever of 104 degrees during the one she missed.
Dick has been a senior executive for a number of companies and currently runs Envirobrand, an eco-strategy consulting firm. Because of the demands of his own career, Dick hasn’t made it to all of Missy’s meets, but he attends as many as he can.
Attending Missy’s swim meets promises to become more challenging as she breaks into the big time on the national and international scene.
For years, Missy competed locally. Then around the state. Now, the world is her stage.
One big change: Missy now travels with her team. Mom and dad aren’t allowed on the same plane – or even to stay in the same hotel.
the attributes that set champion athletes apart from everyone else.
“We see her from the audience,” DA says. “We try to Skype one another. We both have Blackberries. But she travels and sleeps with the team.”
That led to an interesting dilemma when it came time to head home from the Duel in the Pool in Manchester, England, in December 2009. As Missy and the U.S. team headed back home, mom and dad found themselves stranded in England because of a massive snow storm that shut down airports along the East Coast shortly before Christmas.
Suddenly, they had a 14-year-old daughter on her way home to Denver – with no parents there to meet her. “We called friends to get her at the airport, but she was on her own for four days until we could get home,” DA says.
Still, mom and dad will be in the stands whenever possible to cheer for their daughter. When DA, asked Missy if she should show up for an upcoming swim meet in Seattle, Missy’s answer was simple and direct: “Of course. What were you thinking?”
As an executive for Head Sports and Reebok, Dick spent a lot of time around athletes and their families. He worked with Shaquille O’Neal, Arthur Ashe and Wayne Gretzky among others.
He sees in his daughter many of the attributes that set champion athletes apart from everyone else.
“Missy’s able to focus when she needs to focus,” Schmitz adds. “There are a lot of people at all different ages all the way up to adult who don’t know when to turn it on and when to turn it off. It’s a skill. Missy definitely knows when to be serious. But she knows how to have a good time, too.”
And as proud as they are of her success as a swimmer, Missy’s parents are even prouder of what many of their friends tell them: Missy’s a great athlete but she’s an even greater kid. Her ego is on the ground.
Jerry Brown is a Denver-based writer and public relations professional who has worked for The Associated Press, U.S. Information Agency and daily newspapers in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver.