Olympics 2012: Team USA's Athletes Gunning for London Gold

The National Darling: Swimmer Missy Franklin

Missy Franklin
Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Last February, Missy Franklin, a junior at Regis Jesuit High School, chose to swim at the Colorado state championship meet. It was a peculiar decision, considering that Franklin already held the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, and had won five medals at the world championships in Shanghai last summer. But she wanted to be a high-school swimmer, her mother said, because "these are her friends."

At 17, Franklin is a year older than Michael Phelps was when he turned pro, but so far has chosen to maintain her amateur status. In doing so, she's passed up six figures worth of prize money, not to mention lucrative sponsorship deals. It's a decision that has bewildered even her own family. "I don't think about money the same way my parents do," she recently said.

At virtually every Olympics, there is a young American athlete who emerges from relative obscurity to win medals and become a national darling. Franklin, with her infectious smile and adolescent charm, certainly seems a likely candidate to burst onto the scene, in London and beyond, if only because she appears so inherently normal: She is an obsessive Hunger Games fan, her favorite movie is The Sound of Music and her friends refer to her as Goober Face. She also happens to be genetically gifted: She stands six feet, four inches and has size 13 feet (her father has called them "built-in flippers") and is a versatile performer who has already been compared to Phelps and other American multiple gold medalists, like Amy Van Dyken.

Franklin first competed at the Olympic trials in 2008, when she was 13. Dozens of other swimming prodigies have come and gone without ever living up to their potential, but she's managed to hold up well amid the increased demands and attention. After a dominating performance at the Colorado state meet — at which she shattered both state and national records – she was asked if she'd be back again next year rather than turning pro. "I want to be (here) as many times as I can," she told reporters, though it is not difficult to imagine the events of this summer might change her mind.

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