MESA, Ariz. – Last month, Missy Franklin crossed yet another item off of her rapidly expanding to-do list by cavorting with dolphins.
About seven months earlier, she did the same while swimming with sharks.
The dolphins were found in the Bahamas, where the 17-year-old from Colorado was taking part in a documentary film to benefit the Make A Hero project.
The sharks she encountered were lurking at the Olympic pool in London, where Franklin became the darling of international swimming by winning four gold medals last summer.
And even though her sport is escorted out of the network-televised limelight and back into the unconditional embrace of its fan base every four years, Missy’s crossover popularity still seems to be escalating. With one of the most infectious personalities to hit the sports world in quite a while, the distance she’s covered in the past year probably should be accessorized by a reality pinch.
“Oh, my gosh … yes,” Franklin said after competing in three events during Friday night’s finals at the Mesa edition of USA Swimming’s Arena Grand Prix Series. “Like sometimes I wake up and think, ‘Did that just happen?’ It feels like a total dream, having all of these kids out here being so supportive. To have all of these people cheering for me before my race, it’s phenomenal.”
It also could be difficult to finesse this avalanche of fame at such a young age. Being 17 is no hay ride under any circumstances. Mixing the trappings of celebrity and the realization that there’s so much more to do as a swimmer can be daunting.
“It’s not been that much harder,” Franklin said. “The travel is the only thing that’s been a little more difficult. But when I travel, I’m doing the most fun and exciting things.
“One weekend I’ll be at the Golden Globes, and the following Monday I’ll be taking a forensics test.”
Now in the home stretch of her senior year in high school, Franklin’s series of “wow” moments continues to be presided over by those who keep her in emotional and spiritual check.
“My friends, my family, Christ … all of them,” she said. “I make sure I give all of the glory to the right people. They make sure I’m on top of my schoolwork and taking notes for me when I’m gone. And my parents make sure I’m staying a teenager and just being me.”
Being Missy Franklin includes embracing her Pied Piper-style existence at the Skyline Aquatics Center on a night that ended with a second-place finish in the consolation round of the 50-meter freestyle, another second-place, come-from-ahead result in the 200 free and — as the world-record holder in the event — a relative victory cruise in the 200 back.
“I definitely wasn’t concerned with times or places tonight,” she said. “It was more of a training session, competing in three events this morning and tonight. So we’re just getting ready for this summer.”
For the record, this summer’s big-deal event is the World Championships in Barcelona.
“We came out here and raced hard, so (that’s) what we were trying to do.”
When it was over, Franklin’s cooldown phase included meeting, greeting and signing autographs for the same type of impressionable tyke she was while idolizing the superstar swimmers who became her teammates last summer.
“That’s why I’m here,” Franklin said when asked if she feels responsible to give back even more than in-pool performance to the sport that’s taking her places she only dreamed of seeing. “People thank me all the time for signing autographs, but I honestly feel that it’s my job.
“To have the power to make people happy by signing a piece of paper … not many people have that, so I’m blessed and I want to use that.”
But with what might seem like a whirlwind of opportunity before her, the only time Franklin hurries is when she’s in the water. Although she could have been trading in on her success through endorsements and prize money, Franklin has remained an amateur. After prom dates on back-to-back weekends and the World Championships in Barcelona, she’ll start attending classes at Cal-Berkeley.
Franklin, who will swim at Cal for U.S. Olympic team head coach Teri McKeever, plans to compete collegiately for two years.
“I hope to have the opportunity to have this as my job some day,” she said of a professional side of the sport that’s already waiting for her. “But it’s all up to God. I’ll just follow his path.”
The journey and its daily opportunity for progress are considerable motivations.
“So many different ways,” Franklin said when asked how much she can improve after claiming four gold medals and setting a world record at 17. “Mentally and physically … I have so much to learn, so far to go and so much ahead of me in terms of becoming a better person and a better athlete.”