By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Earlier this week, Missy Franklin – still acclimating to being a college freshman at Cal this fall – traveled to New York City to accept the Sportswoman of the Year award from the Women’s Sports Foundation.
She edged out tennis champion and icon Serena Williams, figure skater Mao Asada and wheelchair athlete Tayana McFadden for the prestigious honor.
It’s an award given annually to an individual sport athlete who has performed exceptionally over the previous 12 months – a well-deserved recognition for the phenom from Colorado and what she accomplished over the past year.
Following a four-gold medal performance at the London Olympics in 2012, Franklin became the first female to win six golds (three individual, three relay) at the FINA World Championships last summer in Barcelona.
But the signs of her impending success – and a prelude of what was to come – were visible two years earlier at Worlds in 2011.
In Shanghai as a 16-year-old, Franklin enjoyed her swimming coming out party at Worlds, earning gold in the 200 backstroke (she didn’t even swim that event during the 2008 Olympic Trials) and helping her teammates win gold in the 800 free and 400 medley relays along with a silver in the 400 free relay. She also won bronze in the 50 back.
Now just 18, Franklin is setting standards not previously seen in the sport – at least not on the women’s side. Natalie Coughlin came close, so did Katie Hoff, as did others before them, but no woman has experienced the level of swimming success – and stardom – that Franklin is right now.
Barring some unforeseen happening, at her young age, this is just the start of what could rival the great career of Michael Phelps – but don’t call her the female Phelps. Her humble personality and upbringing won’t allow it.
Nonetheless, she’s a great ambassador for swimming and sport, and in many ways, the future face of USA Swimming.
“The Missy you see on TV and in interviews, laughing and smiling and genuinely being happy, is the real Missy; she’s the same person now as she was when I started working with her years ago,” said her Colorado Stars Coach Todd Schmitz. “She comes from a great family with parents who keep her grounded, but she’s grounded no matter what.
She's selfless to a fault. She would stand on the pool deck for hours signing autographs until someone reminds her she has to cool down after a race or swim another event. That's how much she loves the sport and the fans. It's one of the things that makes her so endearing and relatable."
What makes Franklin so special as a champion swimmer is her drive and desire to race. She hates to lose, and when she does (which is rare lately, although she did finish fourth in the 100 freestyle this year at Worlds despite swimming a personal best time), she’s even more motivated to correct mistakes and improve.
With several veteran swimmers taking post-Olympic time off this summer, Franklin, as well as fellow teenager Katie Ledecky, stepped up (along with stalwart Ryan Lochte) to pace the United States to another strong performance at World Championships.
“World Championships was obviously amazing,” Franklin said. “I had so much fun there. I love Barcelona, and I was really, really happy with how I did. But at those meets, I always learn so much about what I have to improve on and that’s really what I take away from there.”
What her competitors took away from Franklin’s performance at Worlds is that she is a force – one that isn’t going away anytime soon and just keeps getting better.
What swimming fans learned from her swims over the past couple of years is that she is more than prepared – and excited – to be the future of swimming. She’s approachable, likeable and above all else, someone who transcends sport (she had bit parts in “The Internship” and “Pretty Little Liars” this year) into popular culture.
With Michael Phelps having retired last year, the sport is searching for its next iconic star (along with Lochte), Franklin is absolutely the likely candidate.
But to everyone who knows her, she is and will always just be “Missy,” the playful, sometimes goofy but always loveable daughter, friend and teammate who doesn’t get caught up in the hype and always remembers and embraces the important things in life.
“I think the highlight of my year, out of everything so far, was swimming in my first home dual meet here at Berkeley,” Franklin said. “It was just incredible having that feeling, swimming at the Cal pool, wearing the Cal hat and a Cal suit, and knowing that this is real, and one of my dreams really did just come true. It was amazing.”
And so is she.