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Magazine: Sportsperson of the Year – Missy Franklin

It’s late on the night of July 30 as 17-year-old Missy Franklin sinks into her bed inside London’s Olympic athlete village. It’s her first quiet moment alone after a night that – unbeknownst to her at the time – would set her life on a dramatic new course. It’s one of the last quiet moments she’ll enjoy in the foreseeable future.

“What is this?” she thinks to herself. “Did this really just happen? Do you realize what you’re holding right now?”

She’s clutching her first Olympic gold medal, one from a batch that goes down as the largest and heaviest medals in Olympic history – roughly 14 ounces in weight, 85 millimeters in diameter and seven millimeters thick. The Greek Goddess of Victory, Nike, peers out from the front and London’s unique Olympic logo takes up the back, each medal affixed to a purple ribbon. Only the engraving on the bottom differentiates one prize from another. Franklin’s reads, “Women’s 100-Meter Backstroke.”

Thoughts dance in her head, of the congratulatory hugs and handshakes from peers on the pool deck, the outpouring of love from family and friends outside the venue. This is when the reality of Franklin’s accomplishment begins to set in. She can’t yet vote in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, but she’s won an Olympic gold medal for her country.

Her parents, Dick and DA, couldn’t have been more proud as they watched from the nosebleed section of the London Aquatics Centre, marveling at their only child, who swam a 200-meter freestyle semifinal race (and qualified for the next night’s final) just 14 minutes prior to a come-from-behind win in the 100-meter back. After his daughter touched the wall in American-record time (58.33 seconds), Dick high-fived the spectators around him. DA cupped her mouth in disbelief, then covered her teary eyes and fell into Dick’s arms.

Missy caught a glimpse her parents’ reaction on TV just as NBC went live with her post-race interview. Before she could utter a word, tears of joy mingled with the remaining drops of pool water on her cheeks.

The Denver-metro area was just as thrilled. Big Bill’s New York Pizza, one of Missy’s favorite dining establishments near her Centennial home, quickly hung a sign that read, “Congratulations Missy!” That act was soon followed by Tony’s Meat Market a few blocks away, by the Chili’s in Aurora near Missy’s high school, Regis Jesuit, and by numerous families in the Franklins’ neighborhood.

Watching on TV that night was Nuggets president Josh Kroenke. He was set to fly across the pond in a few days to catch some Olympic action, but knew his father, billionaire Stan Kroenke, was already in London. The family had a pair of swimming tickets reserved for Josh the next night, but considering he was still in Denver (perhaps working on a trade that would bring Olympian Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets?), they’d be going unused. So Josh asked his father to arrange for Franklin’s parents to take the seats.

Dick and DA were contacted the following day by a Kroenke assistant and given directions to the yacht on which the family was staying. The vessel’s captain greeted the Franklins, handed them a pricey pair of ducats, and hours later they were sitting next to “The Most Powerful Man In Sports,” as dubbed by Sports Illustrated. Stan Kroenke owns the Nuggets, Avalanche, Rapids, Mammoth and St. Louis Rams, and is a majority shareholder of Arsenal, a soccer club based in London. Needless to say, his seats were a step up from the ones given to parents of Olympians.

“We were very spoiled,” DA says. “It was wonderful. It was hard to go back up top the next night.”

Unfortunately, the Franklins’ new seats five rows from the pool didn’t bring their daughter any extra luck. Missy finished an agonizing fourth in the 200-meter free that night, missing a medal by one one-hundredth of a second. However, she found her place atop the podium again two days later, swimming the opening leg as the U.S. women won the 4×200-meter freestyle relay in Olympic-record time. That marked Franklin’s second relay medal, as she helped win bronze in the 4×100-meter free relay on the Games’ opening night.

She finished fifth in the 100-meter free on Aug. 2, but returned a day later to set a world record in the 200-meter back, her second individual gold. Then, on swimming’s final night, Franklin swam the opening backstroke leg of the 4×100-meter medley relay, gave her teammates the lead, and watched as they brought home another world record and gold medal.

The seven events Franklin swam were more than any other U.S. woman had ever competed in at an Olympics. The four gold medals were more than any other female, period, at the London Games. And those four titles tie her with fellow Colorado swimmer Amy Van Dyken for the most gold medals at one Olympics by a U.S. woman.

To those impressive feats, we add another: After taking MHSM’s Sportsperson of the Year award in 2011, she is the first athlete to secure the honor twice.

***

Franklin left us no other choice, really. That one glorious week in London turned her into Colorado’s most-popular athlete, and arguably America’s most-feted Olympian coming home from the Games. The whirlwind began in England, shuffling her from the Today show to a studio with Bob Costas to numerous other engagements. But it intensified as soon as she landed at Denver International Airport.

Franklin told only a select few confidants about her return date, not realizing how often her recently de-braced smile was splashed across American flat screens. But the employees of United Airlines knew they were carrying precious cargo. The pilot taking Franklin to Denver recognized her on board and congratulated her a couple times over the PA system. As he pulled the plane into its gate at DIA, the pilot came on again and urged Franklin to look out her window. The ground crew held American flags and unfurled a banner reading, “Welcome Home, Missy!”

As she stepped off the jetway, more United employees greeted her with red, white and blue balloons, streamers and American flags, and shouted their congratulations. With her face as red as some balloons, Franklin and her family were whisked away in a golf cart as fellow travelers also hollered their well wishes. By the time they reached baggage claim, local TV crews were thrilled to see the Olympic hero. Some had been there since the morning, not knowing exactly when Colorado’s new superstar would land.

“We thought we were being so sneaky, too,” Franklin says. “We were like, ‘We’re going to be so tired; we can just slip in, slip home.’ But it was so awesome to come home to that.”

It was her first taste of the biggest change in her life – instant recognition. “Whenever I go out somewhere, I now actually have to think about how I look. I can’t just roll out of bed in my PJs and go to King Soopers – which did happen and someone asked me for a picture. I was like, ‘Sure, I’m really sorry about (my appearance), though.’”

Franklin’s look is often taken care of for her now. Like when she was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the day before her senior year started, and when she made a couple cameo appearances – on one of her favorite TV shows, Pretty Little Liars (the episode is set to air in February), and in the movie The Internship, featuring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn (due out in the summer of 2013). There’s also the magazine photo shoots, such as for Vogue and the good-looking one you’re holding in your hands.

Franklin doesn’t feel like much of an icon, but there’s no denying others now see her as one. She was among the celebrity guests at the U.S. Open in New York for Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, where she sang Call Me Maybe with the hit song’s originator, Carly Rae Jepsen, and played tennis partnered with Novak Djokovic, a five-time Grand Slam winner.

“Funniest guy you will ever meet,” Franklin says.

She later walked the red carpet for MTV’s Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, where she sat behind British boy band sensation One Direction.

“I literally thought I was going to die. I was so excited. I was taking creepy pictures on my phone like all night,” she says.

It’s a comment such as that when you’re reminded Franklin really is just 17 years old. But then she goes on to discuss another experience equally as memorable from the post-Olympic parade and you’re reminded she’s much more mature than most her age. The day after her phone blew up because her friends saw her on TV behind One Direction, she was among the celebrities – including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry – taking phone calls for the Stand Up To Cancer Telethon.

“I was on the phone lines and I did some Skype conversations,” she says. “It was just incredible because people would call and you’d thank them for donating and ask them who they’re standing up for, and some people just had the most inspirational stories. It was so cool just the way these people opened up to a total stranger and just told me about the people they had lost and how. It was a very emotional night, but I was so happy I could be a part of it.”

In November, the Franklin family helped the Samaritan House serve Thanksgiving meals to homeless folks. In December, Missy was chosen by kids at Children’s Hospital to be their Christmas-time special guest. She first visited those unable to leave their rooms, then led some ambulatory patients in a dance party.

“She’s doing a lot of things that are giving back to the community, which I’m really proud of her for doing,” DA says.

Franklin’s procession also included visits to the local professional teams. First, she was the featured guest of the Rapids on “Colorado Heroes Night,” then an honorary captain for the Broncos at their season opener. She wasn’t nervous to greet the likes of Peyton Manning or Champ Bailey because she met many players at a team mini-camp in June. Rather, she was on edge because Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had her thinking she would actually flip the coin.

“Oh, Missy, the coin’s huge; you’ve got to flip it the right way and it has to go in our favor,” they told her.

“And I was beyond freaking out,” she says. But really, the referee is the only person who touches the coin.

For her Rockies appearance, however, an actual pitch was required. Thankfully, Matt Belisle showed up at Regis a couple weeks in advance to work with her on technique. She nailed the throw, and in return for Belisle’s teaching, she agreed to compile some swimming workouts for the pitcher to try in his offseason. Franklin’s final stop was with the Nuggets, for whom she presented a game ball to the referees. Surely, if the Avalanche had games to play this season, Franklin would have been that squad’s guest, as well.

“The players have just been so supportive, especially Eric Decker,” DA says. “They all get it; they know what it’s like, the changes that are occurring in her life. They know that she can’t walk down DIA without someone stopping her and wanting a photo.”

Few people know exactly what DA is going through, though. As her daughter’s star began to rise pre-London, she left her job as a physician to become Missy’s unofficial manager.

Someone needed to handle the mounting media requests, travel arrangements and fan mail. DA figured things would die down after the Games, but they’ve only picked up. She says she now turns down 95 percent of the media requests she receives. And she won’t feel comfortable going back to work until the loads of letters in her and Dick’s master bedroom are answered. Oftentimes, she’ll enlist help from her friends, who come over to sift through mail. They’ll organize it so it’s ready for Missy whenever she finds a down moment to sign a few hundred autographs. Other piles are gifts, some of which are peculiar, like the large box of beef jerky; others make the family uneasy.

“We get presents from all over the world, which we have to be careful with because of NCAA (regulations),” DA says. “But there’s a lot of things we can’t return because people will send them and there’s no return address.”

Of course, all these gifts and NCAA regulations wouldn’t be an issue if Missy opted to become a professional, thus accepting the millions of endorsement dollars awaiting her. She could hire an agent, someone trained in handling this abundance of requests. But Franklin has said many times over how much she loves being part of a team, whether that’s the U.S. Olympic squad, her high school team or the group in which she’s invested most of her adolescence, her Colorado Stars club team coached by Todd Schmitz. Thus, she signed on to swim for the University of California-Berkeley starting in the fall. Shockingly, opting to stay amateur was a much-scrutinized decision. Well, shocking to Franklin.

“I wasn’t used to having so many people watch what I was doing, but obviously it was interesting. I block myself out from a lot of media and a lot of talk that goes on outside, but from what I did hear, it was really interesting to hear different people’s opinions on it and just what they thought. And I think one of the things a lot of people don’t know is, no matter what, I was going to go to college, regardless of whether or not I went pro. It was just a matter of whether or not I was going to swim for the team,” Franklin says.

Some may call it a foolish choice, but it was undeniably mature. “At 17, I just felt like I’m not quite ready for swimming to be my job yet,” she says.

Soon enough, it will be. Franklin plans to compete collegiately for two years, then turn pro about 16 months prior to the 2016 Rio Games. At that point, she’ll continue to train at Cal under the tutelage of Teri McKeever, who was a 2012 U.S. Olympic coach. Franklin just won’t be able to compete in NCAA meets. However, she can hire an agent, maybe purchase a car, a house or possibly a place for Dick and DA to live. Because once Missy settles in at Cal, she likely won’t call Colorado her residence until she’s done collecting Olympic medals. About her recruiting trip to Cal, she said, “It felt like it was home and like that’s where I was meant to be.”

Don’t fret, Colorado. We’ll still see plenty of Missy. America won’t let her leave the spotlight anytime soon.


For other stories about Missy Franlin, CLICK HERE

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