Television law dictates that every Olympic Games has a breakout star—the kind of young, unassuming phenom that can top podiums and win hearts.
For the 2012 London Olympics, American swimmer Missy Franklin looks every bit the part.
Heck, the U.S. swimmer looks like she invented the part. It would be difficult to dream up a more perfect, likable Olympic newcomer.
The Colorado native is just 17, and she's already one of the world's best swimmers. Package that with her aw-shucks personality and Franklin has gobs of media potential.
Welcome to Missy Franklin: The Next Big Thing.
The first thing you should know about Missy Franklin is that she swims fast.
Last summer, at age 16, Franklin won five medals (three gold, one silver and one bronze) at the World Championships in Shanghai.
On by far the biggest stage of her young career, Franklin flashed uncommon poise for a swimmer her age and uncommon versatility for a swimmer of any stripe. In addition to individual medals in the 50- and 200-meter backstroke, she posted blistering splits in the 4x100 medley relay (she swam freestyle), 4x100 freestyle relay and 4x200 freestyle relay.
An impressed Michael Phelps told Sports Illustrated, "She's a stud."
The rest of the swimming world seems to agree.
Franklin won the prestigious Golden Goggle award for Female Athlete of the Year (past winners include Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni and Katie Hoff) and was named Female Athlete of the Year by FINA, swimming's international governing body.
So, yeah, she's fast.
Franklin isn't just a talent, she's a specimen.
Consider the raw metrics: 6'1", size 13 shoes, 6'4" wingspan, hands that run 8.5 inches from her wrist to her middle finger.
Those proportions have made a defining impression on Franklin's growing legend. Her size has become its own fascination, caricatured almost to the point where she no longer seems human.
The Washington Post was so enamored with Franklin's physique that they wrote an article entitled Missy Franklin has body built for speed, complete with an animated graphic detailing the physical minutiae that make Franklin a unique swimming talent.
Even in a competition such as the Olympics, one overrun with imposing musculature, few bodies will receive as much attention as Franklin's.
Missy Franklin isn't just nice, she's infectiously nice, unavoidably nice, nice with an added layer of niceness.
Read or watch anything about Franklin and you'll notice that folks can't help but hit that same note over and over again. Naturally they use different words—humble, wholesome, polite, upbeat—but the basic assessment doesn't change.
As Mel Stewart of swimswam.com put it, Franklin is the girl next door.
A typical Franklin interview response reads something like the following, as given to Chicago Tribune reporter Philip Hersh:
"I'm always so excited about what I do that I try to get everyone to feel that way. Hopefully I don't annoy people too much. I'm just an all-around happy girl who loves everything about her life."
Franklin set the same vibe in a sit down with The Today Show's Matt Lauer.
"I love what I do and I have fun with it, and that’s the most important part," she told Lauer.
And when the host asked what expectations she'd set for 2012, Franklin replied, "Honestly, the one thing I want to do is make my country proud."
All indications are that it isn't an act. Teammates gladly attest to the authenticity of Franklin's enthusiasm.
As U.S. swimming great Natalie Coughlin told Sports illustrated, "She's genuinely happy and excited to race, more so than any other swimmer on this team. All of us are trying to mimic that as much as possible. It's unbelievably refreshing to have her energy on the team."
Add in the fact that she's smart (Franklin carries a 3.95 GPA) and the picture is complete. Missy Franklin is the girl you want to watch your cat, or marry your son or, in this case, represent your country.
It's merely a coincidence that Missy Franklin lives and trains 5,830 feet above sea level in her hometown of Centennial, Colorado.
It's not like she sleeps in an oxygen-thin hyperbolic chamber or does wind sprints on top of Mount Everest. She just happens to live in a town one mile above the ocean, and has for most of her life.
But might that play to her advantage?
Swimswam.com asked Franklin what it feels like to compete in the "flat lands" after having labored so long in the thin Rocky Mountain air.
"I love it, especially the first time you get into the pool. It's always just like...there's so much air!...It's a huge advantage training at altitude."
Let the record show: London lies 79 feet above sea level.
That's a lot of air.
Things that happened in 1995:
1) The New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup;
2) The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes went out of print;
3) The Drew Carey Show debuted;
4) ESPN Classic launched;
5) Los del Rio topped the charts with Macarena.
All things Missy Franklin missed because she was too busy being born.
Someone too young to remember the Smashing Pumpkins is a world-class athlete. I am so very old.
Trust me, no one takes this comparison lightly.
Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever. He might be the greatest Olympian ever. Comparing another athlete to Michael Phelps is the swimming equivalent of calling a novelist James Joyce Jr.
In other words, we wouldn't draw the parallel unless it felt real. And in case of Phelps and Franklin, there are substantive similarities between the two.
Both achieved enormous success at a young age. Both have near-perfect swimming bodies: long torsos, long arms, big feet. Both are uncommonly versatile.
That last note is key. It isn't Phelps' speed in any one race that makes him so great. It's the fact that he's so fast in so many different events.
In that regard, Franklin has flashed Phelpsian potential. She's already world class in backstroke and freestyle. Considering her abundant athleticism and high swimmer I.Q., one imagines she can add a few more events as she matures.
And so in the growing canon of Franklin-related articles, you'll find frequent mention of Phelps:
The Washington Post: "...already draws frequent comparisons to Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever."
The New York Times: "Michael Phelps, to whom the versatile Franklin often is compared..."
USA Today: "Missy Franklin, at 16 as precocious in the pool as the teen-aged Michael Phelps was, could be the breakout U.S. star."
Sports Illustrated: "Even Phelps, the gold standard for versatility, wasn't as accomplished at Franklin's age."
ESPN: "Missy Franklin, whom some have called 'the female Michael Phelps...'"
The Today Show: "Comparisons to Phelps, the most accomplished Olympian of all time, are no accident..."
Michael Phelps (via The Washington Post): "Phelps said she 'reminded me of me as a 15-year-old,' and 'She’s probably one of the best female swimmers I’ve ever seen.'"
Yes, even Phelps seems to have given the comparison his blessing.
Much has been made of Franklin's continued participation in high school swimming amidst a grueling pre-Olympics training schedule.
It's a tough balance, Franklin says, but she can't give high school up. She loves the camaraderie, the school spirit, the team mentality—all the intangible perks of scholastic sports that come but once in a lifetime.
She loves that it keeps her 16 even as the rest of the world ushers her into adulthood.
She loves it so much, in fact, that she plans to swim in college.
That's a shocking revelation considering the amount of money Franklin stands to make over the next four years, both in race winnings and endorsement deals. In order to maintain her amateur status and swim collegiately, Franklin would have to bypass every last cent.
In January, the Wall Street Journal wrote an article detailing how much money Franklin has forfeited so far because of her continued amateur status.
$20,000 for winning the USA Grand Prix Series? No thanks.
$50,000 after placing second overall in the FINA World Cup series? Tear up the check.
A $500 gift certificate to Sports Authority courtesy of the Denver Broncs? Nope.
In all, the Wall Street Journal says she's already passed up more than $130,000 in winnings. An expert quoted in the article gauged her endorsement value at about "a few hundred thousand dollars."
That's before she even swims in the Olympics. If Franklin fulfills her considerable potential in London, that number would skyrocket.
It's easy to spot an oncoming irony in all this. Franklin's steadfast commitment to amateurism works seamlessly with her girl-next-door appeal, potentially making her even more marketable.
The longer Missy Franklin turns down people's money, the more they'll want to give her.
What's a budding superstar to do?
As you watch Missy Franklin in London, you'll wonder, "Who's that thirty-something advising her?"
Nope, that's her coach, Todd Schmitz.
"Really? That's her coach," you'll say.
Indeed, Schmitz, who also heads Franklin's club team, the Colorado Stars, is an unlikely liaison. He isn't a world-class instructor with a long list of Olympic pupils. He doesn't have ample experience at the international level or a plum college coaching job.
To the contrary, he's your typical neighborhood swim coach—the kind of guy who wandered into a right-place-right-time scenario and never let go.
The Colorado-based instructor first met Franklin when she was 7 and has been with her ever since. When outsiders pressured Franklin's parents to ditch Schmitz for a higher profile mentor, they demurred.
As Dick Franklin, Missy's dad, told WGNtv.com, "If it ain't broken, why fix it?"
He makes a strong point.
It's official: Tim Tebow has seeped into every corner of our sporting zeitgeist, Missy Franklin included.
She told the paper, "I am a frequent Tebower," later adding, "I'm actually trying to Tebow underwater, so we'll see how that goes."
Of course that was when Tebow played for Franklin's beloved Broncos, which makes one wonder:
Did her devotions travel east with Tebow?
Or does she now count herself among the Manningite tribe?
Ah, the important questions.
It's perilously early to talk about predicted medal counts for any swimmer, especially one like Franklin, who has yet to make an Olympic appearance.
But Franklin's London schedule could give her a chance to win seven medals, including some relays. Click on the link for a full breakdown, with predictions.
Her best chances for gold, besides relays, will come in the 100 and 200 backstroke events.