For much of her 18 years, Missy Franklin has spent her days trying to go faster, constantly seeking ways to shave another fraction of a second off her times in the pool. When it comes to her brief college career, though, the Olympic gold medalist wishes she could slow things down a little.
Franklin will swim in her first NCAA championships beginning Thursday at the University Aquatic Center. Her superb freshman season at the University of California will end Saturday when the team champions are crowned, marking the halfway point of her abbreviated college tenure. “It’s gone by so fast, I can’t even tell you,” said Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze as she became a breakout star at the 2012 London Olympics. “It’s just been so much fun.”
That is exactly what Franklin expected when she delayed her pro career after the London Games, bypassing an estimated $1.5 million in endorsement income to preserve her college eligibility. Her plan is to turn pro in 2015, giving her a year to cash in on her growing fame as she prepares for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Since London, her star has risen further. Franklin won six gold medals at last summer’s world championships, more than any woman in history. She will fly to Malaysia after the NCAA meet for the Laureus World Sports Awards, where she is a finalist for the organization’s sportswoman of the year, and she has been invited to appear in TV shows and movies.
For the moment, she is happiest at Cal, where she will compete in three individual events and four relays as the Golden Bears chase their fourth NCAA title in the past six years.
“I have not regretted it once, not even for the tiniest moment,” Franklin said of her choice to swim in college. “I would make the same decision 100 times over.
“It’s very emotionally challenging at some points, going into the [NCAA meet] and knowing I only have one more. I would love more than anything to swim all four years collegiately, but looking into the future and looking at the rest of my life, there are some different decisions that have to be made. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not excited to go professional. That’s been my dream ever since I was a little girl. I am so, so thrilled to do that, but it’s definitely going to be hard not being part of this team.”
A Colorado native, Franklin joined a stacked Cal roster that includes 10 All-Americas from a team that finished second in the nation last season. She enters the NCAA meet ranked No. 1 in the 100- and 200-yard freestyles and second in the 500 free.
Though Franklin is the reigning Olympic and world champion in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, she is not swimming backstroke events during the college season. Because of Cal’s depth in those races — and its need for a strong contender in the 500 free — coach Teri McKeever chose to have Franklin concentrate on the freestyle this year.
Franklin set meet records at the Pacific-12 championships as she won the 100 free (47.17 seconds), 200 free (1:42.29) and 500 free (4:35.73); she also was part of three winning relay teams.
At Cal, Franklin trains daily with four other 2012 Olympians — including Rachel Bootsma of Eden Prairie — as well as three other members of the U.S. national team and three NCAA champions. The environment, McKeever said, is both highly competitive and supportive, and Franklin has thrived.
“Some people want it to be about themselves,” said McKeever, who also coached Franklin at the Olympics. “People at Cal know it’s about something bigger than you. It’s about a team. It’s about the university. Missy has embraced all those things.”
Franklin said she loves the team atmosphere, and she relishes the unique opportunities she is getting at Cal. Because college swimming is contested in short-course yards, which requires more turns than long-course meters, it has given Franklin the chance to work on that aspect of her racing; she expects that will translate to faster times when she returns to national and international competition.
An eager student, she also has had to adjust to Cal’s rigorous academic demands.
The increased workloads and outsized expectations have not altered her unfailingly sunny, outgoing personality. Franklin recently did the “worm” dance for a Pac-12 webcast and referred to her teammates as “goofballs” that she can laugh with, even as they are pushing each other to exhaustion.
“Missy has an incredible work ethic, which you would expect,” said Bootsma, a friend of Franklin’s before they swam together at Cal. “But she also has such a kind heart. It’s refreshing to be around her, because she never has a bad word to say about anyone.”
At national and international meets, Franklin will continue to compete in the 100 and 200 freestyle and 100 and 200 backstroke. She will remain at Cal after she turns pro, training with McKeever and the Golden Bears while continuing to take classes.
She is in no hurry to get to that point. With only two chances to compete at the NCAAs, Franklin wants to savor this one.
“I got nervous for [the NCAA meet] about a week ago,” she said. “But there’s also a new level of excitement that’s never been there before. I can’t wait to finally get there and start swimming.”