By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When a swimmer obtains a nickname, they’ve “made it.” Nicknames are the equivalent of being knighted into swimming lore. Swimming nicknames aren’t handed out like participatory ribbons. They are earned: The Baltimore Bullet. The Thorpedo. The Spitzstache. (I may have invented that last one.)
The sport’s latest bestowed nickname is “Missy The Missile” after teenage swimming sensation Missy Franklin. Sure, it’s corny. (It’s also strange that many swimming nicknames take on militaristic implications? What exactly are swimmers blowing up?) But consider many megastars are nickname-less, like Rebecca Soni, and you realize Missy’s widespread athletic pop culture influence.
And she’s not even in college.
Our sport has never seen someone so young reach so many. Missy has 367,000 Twitter followers. That’s more residents than in the city limits of St. Louis, Arlington, or Tampa. She has been on TV—a guest role on Pretty Little Liars. She’s been a parade grand marshal. She’s thrown an opening pitch for the Colorado Rockies. She’s been honored during a Denver Broncos game. She’s been everywhere. No high school senior has been busier.
Which is why Missy Franklin’s ascension back onto swimming’s throne is so remarkable:
She’s done all that while training.
In the weeks and months after the Olympics, many superstars took time away from the chlorinated confines. They had to. They were burned out. Many veterans spent thousands of days and millions of yards preparing for a 60 second race. If the Olympics is the apex of the mountain, the three month post-Olympic period is the 29,000-foot freefall back to sea level. Post-Olympic depression is common. So is weight gain. As well as a reluctance to return to those chlorinated confines. Many veterans embraced those three R’s—rest, recovery, and retreat.
Imagine what you would do. You just won Olympic gold. You’re an international superstar. Anywhere you go, people recognize your face, know your name, take your photograph, request your autograph. You can seemingly do anything. After all, you just climbed Everest. You conquered the apex. You hoisted the American flag.
Then someone says, holding a stopwatch: “Do it again.”
Many Olympians had the luxury (and open calendar) to step away. Even Bob Bowman temporarily excused himself from coaching. These veterans embarked on vacations, traveled the world, road-tripped, got married… They did things they missed en route to London. They revisited friends, toured cities, and just plain slept in.
Missy Franklin went back to school.
Of course, high school is not an obligation. (To some.) But imagine returning to Colorado a hero. Imagine returning to high school with Olympic gold medals hanging around your neck. “High School Quarterback Fame” is nickels and dimes compared to “Olympian Gold Medal Fame.” It must have been incredible, fun, thrilling, and invigorating. But still. Missy also had to return to the classroom. She also had to study. She had to trek back to the pool before dawn. If anything can ruin that post-Olympic high and send you spiraling downwards, it’s that unwanted (yet inevitable) Return To Monotony. If anyone in America had an excuse to experience a piano-load of high school senioritis, it would have been Franklin.
But here she is. Ascending swimming’s throne once more.
It couldn’t have been easy. But not only has Franklin navigated both the ascent and descent of the Olympics, she’s climbing once more. She graduated high school. She’s heading to Berkeley this autumn. During a summer when, typically, many high school seniors aimlessly wander, Franklin has wandered her way to Barcelona. And it certainly wasn’t aimless.
Todd Schmitz, Missy’s coach and motivator, must have a secret trick. Judging by the Colorado Stars’ recently-released “taper spoof video,” I have an idea that trick may involve strange and wild theories like “swimming should be fun.” (Click here to watch the video.)
Yes, that’s Missy The Missile acting un-Missile-like. Actually, she’s acting exactly how a high school tapering senior should act. Though I don’t doubt her missile-like tenacity behind the blocks or in the water, it appears as though Missy has an equal amount of fun enacting underwater dance moves as she does conquering 200m long course backstrokes.
Maybe that’s the secret. Many coaches who seek that elusive Fountain Of Youth—that elixir that keeps swimmers going, motivated, and fast—should take a lesson from the Stars and Franklin and Schmitz. Whether it’s silly Tweets sent to hundreds of thousands of followers, amusing YouTube videos about taper, or simple comments like “I’m still having fun in the sport,” Todd Schmitz & Co. are proving that Fountain Of Youth’s formula isn’t such a secret:
Take a talented swimmer. Add water. Mix in hard work. Sprinkle some fun. It’s result? We saw it last summer. And we’re about to see it in every single race next week (particularly, I believe, that 100m backstroke.)
No one could blame Franklin if she had experienced a particularly nasty case of senioritis. Becoming a nicknamed, knighted swimming legend before college simply adds immense pressure.
But she keeps climbing. She keeps going. And if Missy Franklin can handle these past 12 months, the apexes, the valleys, and everything in between, she can handle next week’s World Championships, the transition into college, and whatever comes next…
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.