BARCELONA, Spain — Missy Franklin giggled a bit when a reporter asked for her “body measures.”
Then she dove right in.
She’s 6-foot-1. She estimated her wingspan at around 6-4ish. She wears size 13 shoes.
Say this about Missy the Missile: She’s comfortable in her own skin.
That wasn’t always the case, though.
The endearing star of the London Olympics, where success in the water was only enhanced by her bubbly personality on dry land, conceded Friday there were some uncomfortable moments along the way.
“I’m definitely a little bit different than your average 18-year-old girl,” Franklin said during a news conference with five other American stars at the world swimming championships. “It was actually a little difficult growing up and kind of being a little bit different than everyone, always being a head above all the boys. It kind of took me a while to realize how much it helps me.”
With Michael Phelps in retirement, at least for now, Franklin is the leading attraction for this every-other-year championship being held at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, the same arena where Phelps had his breakout performance at the 2003 worlds.
A couple of months removed from her high school graduation, Franklin will take on a Phelpsian-like workload by swimming eight events — five individual races, plus all three relays. The swimming competition begins Sunday.
“It’s definitely a lot,” she said. “But I’m very, very excited. There are some of my favorite races. I’m really looking forward to those. The expectations are just to have fun.”
That has never been much of a problem for Franklin, who has drawn inevitable comparison to Phelps in the pool but carries herself much differently on deck.
Phelps was always deadly serious when he walked out for a race — headphones blocking the cheers, the routine never wavering, his steely eyes better suited for a staredown in the boxing ring. He was, in a sense, the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of the water, greatly respected for his mammoth accomplishments but always a bit aloof and out of reach for his fans.
Franklin’s personality couldn’t be more different.
She’s always smiling and waving to the crowd, almost right up to the moment the buzzer goes off to start the race. During Grand Prix meets, she’ll hang around at the end of the night for up to an hour, fulfilling every request for an autograph. Around USA Swimming, they remember her being a bit cranky this one time when she was really, really tired; otherwise, she always seems to be having a good day.
“Awesome” is her favorite word, and she really seems to mean it. About everything.
But her longtime coach, Todd Schmitz, said there’s a competitive side to Franklin that you must be looking for closely to see.
“A lot of athletes, whether it’s professional sports or whatever, they go into game mode too early and use a lot of energy before they’re on the field or in the water,” he said. “If you watch Missy, she doesn’t get into game mode too soon. Even when she comes out for a race, she parades around and waves to everybody. But watch for it. When she goes like this,” motioning as though pulling down a set of goggles, “it’s just, BOOM! Then, she’s just staring down the lane.”
Franklin exceeded her wildest expectations in London, where she won four gold medals and a bronze. She came close to taking medals in all seven of her events, finishing fourth in the 200 free by one-hundredth of a second and fifth in the 100 free, just 0.2 off the podium.
Those close calls provided plenty of motivation for Franklin heading into a year when most of the top swimmers are coming off a much-needed break and admittedly aren’t in the same condition as during the Olympics. But she never lets a defeat stick with her too long. Certainly, she’s not one to put up a bedside picture of someone who beat her — a la Phelps.
“She’s wired completely different from any athlete I’ve ever coached or almost any athlete out there,” Schmitz said. “She can go into game mode, but as soon as her hand hits the wall, she’s out of game mode. She’s all smiles.”
By all accounts, Franklin has maintained a balance in her life that is often missing for elite athletes. After London, she went back to finish her senior year of high school in suburban Denver, taking part in nearly all the extracurricular activities that make it such a special time in a young person’s life. Proms? She went to two of ‘em. Sports? Yep, she swam for her school team (and, not surprisingly, led it to a state title).
Franklin graduated with stellar grades and will head off to Cal-Berkeley in the fall, where she plans to retain her amateur status for another two years before finally turning pro in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics. She hasn’t decided on a major, saying she has a “passion for so many things.” Marine biology is a possibility. So is medical school. And she would love to be an elementary school teacher.
“One piece of the puzzle is swimming,” Schmitz said. “So many people forget that all the other pieces around her are just as important. It’s about having balance in your life.”
No swimmer — male or female — has ever won eight gold medals at the world championships. Phelps had a shot at it in 2007, winning his first seven events, but the U.S. was disqualified during the preliminaries of the 400 medley relay while he was resting up to swim the final. The following year, of course, he did go eight-for-eight at the Beijing Olympics.
Franklin isn’t giving off an eight-or-bust vibe, saying she merely wants to go as fast as she can and accept the results. And her program — which includes a non-Olympic event, the 50 back — isn’t as strenuous as Phelps’ program at the 2004 and ‘08 Olympics, which included the grueling 200 and 400 individual medleys.
But this is the time in Franklin’s career when she needs to be testing her limits, said Jacco Verhaeren, the director of the Dutch national team.
“She’s young,” he said. “I don’t see anyone at 25 or 26 doing this. But at her age, I think it’s possible. And for her, it’s a very good tryout. I think she can handle the load. It’s definitely not something that she’s going to do her whole career. But to do it here or maybe this whole Olympic cycle, I think she has a good shot.”
As for Franklin, she couldn’t be happier with her “body measures.”
They turned to be perfect for the pool.
“It took me a while to realize how much it helps me,” she said. “I’ve come to realize it’s such an incredible blessing to be born with what I’ve been born with. I don’t think I would be sitting here today if I didn’t have these genes.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963