There’s something incredibly compelling—and awesome—about watching Missy Franklin win an Olympic gold medal and then seeing a clip of her doing “the worm” at a send-off hosted at her high school, Regis Jesuit.
Or watching her manage the pressure of swimming two Olympic events with only a 13-minute break in between and then seeing her reaction to a Tweet from Justin Bieber.
Obviously, Franklin’s Olympic feats are awe-inspiring on their own. But then when you factor in that she’s only 17 years old, well, that’s just crazy.
(I would know. My day job is teaching high school English.)
But Franklin is not the only teen making waves in the pool at these Olympics. She’s not even the youngest.
At least two other teenagers are also having phenomenal Olympic performances. China’s Ye Shiwen, 16, crushed everyone in the 400-meter individual medley, winning gold while setting a new world record. A few days later, she won the 200-meter individual medley.
And then there’s 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte from Lithuania who came almost out of nowhere to beat world champion Rebecca Soni and win gold in the 100-breaststroke.
Let’s take a closer look at the best teenage swimmers in London.
Ruta Meilutyte, 15, Lithuania
Before she took gold in the 100-meter breaststroke, there was no talk of Ruta Meilutyte’s medal possibilities. According to Toby Davis of Reuters (via Chicago Tribune), even Meilutyte herself didn’t think about it.
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“I didn’t think I could win gold not at any point,” she said. “It came as a complete surprise when I touched. I was not looking round. I was not looking at which position I was in, whether I was last or I was first. I just thought I will do every thing I can and see how it goes.”
Unbeknownst to Meilutyte, she didn’t need to be aware of her surroundings. She led from the very beginning and held off Soni, who is known for her closing speed, with a time of 1 minute, 5.55 seconds.
Meilutyte’s road to London hasn’t been easy. She lost her mother in a car accident in 2001. Because her father was working in the U.S. at the time, Meilutyte’s grandmother raised her and her brothers until her father returned. Then in 2008, she moved to Plymouth, England with him. Meilutyte earned a scholarship to Plymouth College and now, she is a classmate of British diver Tom Daley.
Fearlessness oftentimes comes with youth, and it seems like Meilutyte has both.
Ye Shiwen, 16, China
One the most impressive women’s swimming performance so far has belonged to Ye Shiwen.
The 16-year-old looked like she replaced her legs with a motor in the final 50 of the 400 individual medley to win the gold and set a new world record. Amazingly, that split was faster than that of men’s 400 individual medley gold medalist Ryan Lochte.
As a result of such an amazing performance, Ye is now facing the some very adult rumors that she is doping.
It is unfortunate that Ye must answer to these suspicions, especially because it is not unheard of for teenage swimmers to lower their personal bests by such great margins (Ye improved on her previous personal best by five seconds in the 400 IM). Back in 2000, 14-year-old Michael Phelps lowered his personal best by 5.5 seconds at the National Swimming Championships.
But with adult accomplishments come adult pressures, even when it’s teenagers accomplishing them.
In a USA Today story by Nicole Auerbach, Ye called the suspicions “a little unfair.”
“How come they criticize me just because I have multiple medals?” she asked.
Ye has been a part of the Chinese national team since 2008 and first earned success on the international level in 2010 when she won four medals—two golds at the Asian Games and two silvers at the world championships. According to Nick Thompson of CNN.com, Ye’s coach knew she would be an Olympic champion when she was just 10.
Two years ago, Ye listed “to win the gold medal in 2012 Olympic Games” as one of her ambitions. How many people in this world can say they’ve achieved a life goal by 16?
And Ye is just getting started.
Missy Franklin, 17, United States
Missy Franklin did set some goals for herself heading into the London Olympics.
But forget about starting off easy. How about becoming the first American woman to compete in seven events in an Olympics?
Then how about winning a few?
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Franklin, who has two gold medals so far, is how normal, grounded and happy she appears to be all while working her way through a pressure-packed program and receiving lots of attention. Even Phelps never appeared that comfortable with expending such energy inside of and outside of the pool. And according to Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Phelps thought Franklin’s initial energy was sure to wane.
“This is going to be a completely different experience for her,” he said.
But so far, Franklin still seems fresh even after winning the 100-meter backstroke after just 13 minutes rest.
Franklin has turned down prize money and endorsements and kept her amateur status so that she can keep her college options open and, though it is unlikely, possibly continue to compete with her high school team her senior year.
To me, the possibility of that last part is the kicker. Missy Franklin, three-time Olympic medalist (at least) and conference champion for Regis Jesuit High School!
And, not to mention, perhaps someone who is in the beginnings of becoming the best female swimmer ever.