Gold Medalist Missy Franklin Competing In H.S. Events

January 15, 2013 / Swimming
Wall Street Journal, Stu Woo

GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo.—On Tuesday, the Cherry Creek High School girls’ swim team will lose for only the 19th time out of some 400 meets over 38 years.

It’s a near certainty for this suburban Denver squad, whose speediest girls have no hope of matching their swiftest opponent, Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old star of Regis Jesuit High School and, oh yeah, the bubbly five-medal winning heroine of the London Olympics.

“It’s sort of defeating,” said Tiffany Bae, mother of Alex Bae, a Cherry Creek swimmer who may race Franklin in a freestyle race Tuesday. “She won so many gold medals. I don’t know what you’re there to prove.”

In recent memory, no one as accomplished as Franklin has ever followed up on Olympic domination by returning to high school to lap ordinary 14-year-old freshmen. What made this possible was her decision last year to forgo an estimated $3 million a year in endorsements to remain amateur, a choice that suggested that no amount of money could corrupt her pursuit of an ordinary adolescence.

“The best part of staying amateur is that I am still able to do things like this,” Franklin said after winning all four races in a high-school meet last week. “I have given up so much for that.” Remaining an amateur will also let Franklin swim next year for the University of California, Berkeley.

But some high-school rivals view her as more of a pain in the pool.

“It’s really frustrating when Missy kind of shines above everything,” said Bonnie Brandon, who before graduating last spring was Colorado’s greatest-ever female high-school swimmer next to Franklin. “She’s No. 1 in the world, and No. 1 in the state, and then I’m No. 2 in the state.…It’s just hard being in close proximity,” said Brandon, now a University of Arizona swimming star.

The Franklin effect is particularly painful for Cherry Creek, the New York Yankees of Colorado girls’ swimming with 26 state titles in 38 years. Of Cherry Creek’s 18 all-time losses in individual meets, two came at the hands of Franklin-led Regis, and Tuesday’s would make a third.

Franklin also cost Cherry Creek a 27th title in 2011. “If they didn’t have her, they had no chance of winning,” said Cherry Creek coach Eric Craven.

“I don’t cry at all for them,” countered Regis girls’ athletic director John Koslosky, noting that Cherry Creek boasts more than double the enrollment of Regis, a private Catholic school. “They have plenty of years they’ve won. We’re just enjoying our moment.”

Of course, many rival swimmers are enthralled to swim against an Olympic star. Following her first meet since the Olympics, last week’s contest against Highlands Ranch High School, so many rival swimmers asked to pose for photographs with Franklin that she missed the beginning of her team’s post-meet cheer. Before rejoining her team this year, Franklin expressed concern about sucking attention from other girls, only to hear from rival coaches that their girls wanted to share the pool with the world’s best.

But Craven, the Cherry Creek coach, isn’t starry-eyed. His advice to his swimmers facing the Olympian: “Don’t get caught up just watching.”

Craven is advising his team to finish ahead of all Regis swimmers except Franklin—and to avoid getting lapped by the superstar. He’s also urging those in the lanes beside Franklin to try drafting off her—a tactic that requires staying close. “There’s a point where you can [draft], and then when she’s so far ahead, there’s nothing really you can do,” said Cherry Creek’s Emma Cunningham, who may race Franklin in the 500-freestyle race.

Even before the Olympics, Franklin’s renown was such that her participation in a meet tended to fill the stands and attract television cameras, leaving some parents without a seat to watch their children swim. Last year’s meet against Regis, said Cherry Creek swimmer Kaylyn Flatt, “was definitely Missy centered.”

The good news for other Regis rivals is that Franklin plans to compete in only two individual meets this year, the minimum required to qualify for the state championships. It goes without saying that one would be Cherry Creek. “They’re our biggest rival,” said Franklin.

Also fortuitous for other schools is that one swimmer can only wield so much influence. At last year’s state championships, Franklin’s Regis team finished third behind second-place Cherry Creek.

But 2011 was a different story. To win its seventh-straight state title, Cherry Creek needed to prevail in the 400-yard freestyle relay. After 300 yards, Cherry Creek was well ahead—until Franklin dived into the pool to swim the anchor leg. Regis won the race and its first-ever state title in the top division.

This year, with Brandon having graduated, Cherry Creek will find it all the harder to defeat Franklin-led Regis. “I don’t particularly like that she’s swimming at state,” Alex Bae, Cherry Creek’s captain, said of Franklin.

Last week’s meet between Regis and Highlands offered a glimpse of the gap between Franklin and everyone else.

Before the meet, Highlands sophomore Emily Eck found her mom in the stands. She had just found out she was going to swim in the lane next to Franklin in the 400-yard freestyle relay.

“I’m pretty scared,” Emily said. “I’m not as good as her.”

Katie Eck smiled at her daughter. “But it is still cool, right?” she said. Emily nodded.

As Franklin made her way to the pool for her first race—the 200-yard individual medley—the 6-foot-1 Olympian towered over her teammates and competitors. Before getting on the starting block, Franklin turned to Paige West, a Highlands Ranch junior, and said, “Good luck!”

Fans of both schools snapped photos as Franklin dived into the 25-yard pool. When Franklin finished the eighth and final length, West was still 10 yards away from finishing her seventh length. West, who finished 20 seconds behind Franklin, was the runner up.

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