Missy Franklin wins AAU Sullivan Award
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When Missy Franklin announced – then kept repeating – that she would not turn professional, the decision was met with (mostly) enthusiasm and admiration. In an age when, increasingly, sports and athletes are motivated and driven by money, advertising, and marketing dollars, here was a teenage Olympic champion maintaining her amateur status. She wanted to compete in college. But not only that, she said that through the NCAA experience, she would perhaps one day meet her “future bridesmaids.” Somehow, the teenage Franklin had (and has) the wisdom and maturity to acknowledge that through the opportunities provided with collegiate swimming, she will meet her future best friends, bridesmaids, mentors, etc.. She knew this experience was something that no amount of money could replace.
Last night, Franklin won the prestigious AAU Sullivan Award. The award recognizes the best amateur athlete of the previous sports year. In doing so, Franklin became just the third U.S. swimmer in the past twenty-four years to win, joining Michael Phelps (2003) and Jessica Long (2006). The award isn’t just fitting. It’s a statement. It’s recognizing an athlete forsaking literal gold and glory in return for the experience of sport. That sentiment – that sport is about experience rather than money -- is nostalgic in its simplicity, and yet seems progressive in perspective.
When I first heard the name “Missy Franklin,” I was a bit behind the times. She was already a superstar teenager, but given the plethora of superstar teenagers around the swim circuits these past ten years, I hadn’t paid much attention to her. Then, when whispers about her talent transitioned into victories and interviews, I – like everyone else -- paid more attention. When it became apparent that Franklin would be very, very good, I remember sitting in a media room next to a crowded deck where Franklin’s coach, Todd Schmitz, was interviewed. Someone asked Todd about Missy turning professional. After all, Phelps turned pro. As did Katie Hoff, Dagny Knutson, and Chloe Sutton. “Turning pro” in swimming suddenly was not an oxymoron, but a legitimate enterprise in build-up to the Olympics. I remember Todd saying something like, “Missy wants to go to college, and that is the goal. Though we’ll see where the journey goes, I can’t really foresee that goal changing.”
The journey ultimately took Missy to the highest of highs, the pinnacle of sport. She won multiple Olympic gold medals, something only a fraction-of-a-fraction of elite athletes have ever done. By numerous media accounts – though I’m not exactly sure how these numbers were calculated – Franklin could have received “millions” in pre and post-Olympic endorsement deals. I don’t doubt that number. But it’s nice to know that “millions” still isn’t worth the value of “bridesmaids.”
And that’s why so many people relate to Missy. She’s rerouted this widespread media formula about athletic success. Typical athletes and some coaches think in terms of a successful career formula like this: “Olympics + Gold = Money and Success.” Missy, though she will turn professional in a few years leading up to the 2016 Olympics, calculated then proved her own formula: “Fun + Hard Work = Olympics + Gold = More Fun.”
You always see her smiling, you always see her laughing, and you never read gossipy types of articles or columns about her. I don’t write this to necessarily put her on some insane and too-high-to-reach pedestal. Everyone is human and everyone deserves a chance to be human. All I’m saying is, it’s nice to know that Missy is being recognized for pursuing sports in its purest formula: the experience. The fun. The friendships.
The most impressive thing about Missy is that she can foresee not just next year, but years to come. NCAA sports are not just about a few years of competitive swimming. It’s not about swimming back and forth in a concrete pool then hanging up your suit and getting a job. It’s a few years of experiences that transitions into a lifetime of experiences. The friendships you make on close-knit teams don’t simply last until you’re through with swimming, but onwards: into your twenties, your thirties, at weddings and bachelor parties and through divorces and funerals and onwards. Ultimately, what Missy asked herself, and subsequently what she asked the rest of us, including the media, was this:
What price would you put on a best friend?
Turns out that Missy wouldn’t take a million dollars over a best friend. And that is why we relate to her – because many of us would do the same thing.
So kudos and congratulations, Missy Franklin. You’ve won the most prestigious award in amateur sports. Of course, this is a testament to your athletic skill, but also being a vocal ambassador – intentional or not -- of what amateurism and the experience of what high school, age group, and NCAA swimming can provide.
But kudos for believing in the journey, the process, and having the foresight to say to the entire world, again and again and again, that simple lesson we all know, but is sometimes good to occasionally hear from our heroes:
Money can’t buy everything.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.