The girls wear their tangled wet hair twisted into buns. The buns are practical — the best way to stuff long tresses beneath a swim cap — but also their style, the same way their cherry-red team parkas are practical but also their style. They put their hair up and then take it down, sometimes with an abrupt, inexplicable purposefulness. Maybe it just gives them something to do. There is a lot of time to kill at a high school swim meet.
They sit on a long metal bench or on damp towels on the floor, their clothes and bags strewn around them. They eat snacks, massage each other’s shoulders, and tend to their iPhones. They do not pay any special attention to Missy Franklin, who slouches at the end of the bench. She and a friend are talking, their heads tucked toward each other. Her bun is as high and as messy as the rest.
The blast of the starting horn rouses the team, and suddenly everybody is focused on the eight swimmers in the water. The girls are on their feet, screaming cries of a stunning pitch and duration, the kinds of shrieks that only kids are capable of. They are desperate. They clap their hands and push at the air, as if they could propel their teammates through the water toward the wall. The Regis Jesuit High School swim team badly wants to win this meet against its rival, Cherry Creek. It’s Senior Night, the last home meet of the season, and besides there’s a little bad blood between the teams today. Cherry Creek was the dominant team in Colorado high school swimming until Missy Franklin came along. It hasn’t taken losing to the Franklin-led Regis Jesuit team so gracefully, and had in fact grumbled to a reporter in that morning’s Wall Street Journal that getting beaten by an Olympian was not fun and perhaps not fair. “We were fired up before we knew about the article,” a Regis Jesuit senior, Abby Cutler, tells me after the race, “and we were just 10 times more fired up afterward.” The Regis Jesuit swimmers certainly seem intense, their bodies pitched toward the pool, their arms waving, their screams almost feral. The sound hangs in the hot, thick, chlorinated air once the swimmers’ hands hit the wall, and then it disappears. The race is over. Hugs are exchanged, and then the attention on the team’s bench disintegrates, and the girls are back to their snacks, their gossip, their hair.
Some of them wrap towels around their waists or put on T-shirts and running shorts; others don’t bother. They wear team suits, black with pinkish-red patches that may be flowers or smudges or small explosions, with thin crisscrossing straps. The cut manages to unflatter every body type, whether tall, short, stocky, or thin. Anywhere else, wearing anything else, they would appear awkward. But not here, not at their pool, not in the small inflatable dome they call “the bubble.” They look at home.
You might think they would look aware of the spectators crammed into the bleachers on the other side of the pool, or the photographers and cameras clustered by the scorer’s table. The bleachers are overflowing, people were turned from the door, and it’s not exactly common for there to be a media section at a high school girls’ swim meet. But the girls are preoccupied, and they are not fazed. They are used to being notable for who they are not. For more than a year, they have been shadowed by reporters at the pool, at school, and at team dinners. They have seen themselves on TV and in newspapers, visible in the background or next to their famous friend. She is Missy Franklin, Missy the Missile, Little Miss Sunshine, the best swimmer in the world. They are Franklin’s teammates on the Regis Jesuit High School swim team, if they are identified at all.
When I picked up my rental car at the airport in Denver, the man behind the counter asked me why I was in town. “Missy,” I answered. No other words needed, and the guy — enormous, bald, African American — was not surprised. He nodded. “I was just talking about Missy the other day,” he said. “If I were a high school swimmer, I’d quit.” I laughed and said I would, too. But that was before I entered the bubble.
T his meet against Cherry Creek is the last time Franklin will compete at home. She does not swim in all of Regis Jesuit’s meets. Before the season began there had been some question of whether she’d swim for her high school at all. After she won four gold medals at the Olympics, it was hard to believe that high school, much less high school swimming, could mean much to her anymore. But after she decided to turn down millions of dollars1 so she could swim for the University of California, Berkeley, she decided to swim her senior year at Regis Jesuit. She has been on this team for four years; these girls are her teammates and her friends. So there she is, sitting on the end of the long bench, or standing behind the starting blocks, her smile so big you can almost see her molars, even at a distance. She drapes her long arms around a teammate. She bends backward and as she laughs, she clutches at her hands as if to loosen or to warm them.
Franklin is easy to spot. She is 6-foot-1. Her feet are flippers, size 13. When she leans down to grab the starting block for her first event, the 200-yard freestyle, her triceps pop out like rope around a solid pole. After she dives, she becomes a dark streak under water. By the time she surfaces, the race is more or less over. She seems to swim in a shorter pool. Water flows smoothly over the slopes of her body. Her strokes are slow and deliberate, almost unathletic, nothing like the hectic, splashy crawls of the girls in the other lanes. She wins the race by nearly 11 seconds — and this is no big deal; she is capable of a much faster time. (She missed a medal in London in the 200-meter freestyle by .01 seconds, the one disappointment of her Olympics. She came away with five medals, two world records, and an additional American record.)
In professional shots or photos of her on a red carpet, Franklin has a striking, old-fashioned beauty. Her translucent skin and chestnut hair, her long, strong face, and her large, deep-set eyes remind me of a 19th-century heroine, or one of those Twilight vampires. She has an aura that some famous people have, and also some children: a way of laughing and smiling and calling attention to themselves without seeming showy. It makes her look ageless sometimes, but not now. In the bubble, her skin is pink in patches, and her team parka is shapeless, and she is yawning. She looks like the others, only bigger.
While she waits for her race she gyrates her shoulders and hips and dances. She claps, cheers, and checks her phone. She kisses people on the tops of their heads and strokes their hair. “She is just one of us. When she comes, it’s like nothing changes,” says Cutler. “She’s part of our team, whether she’s practicing with us all the time or not. No, nothing really changes. She’s just one of us.”
Half an hour after the meet ends, Franklin is still down by the diving board, even though I’ve been told she would leave directly to go to practice. But the ban on interviews doesn’t seem to extend to spectators, because they are clustered around her, wanting her autograph, wanting a picture, wanting to touch her. She smiles and obliges everyone. A cop waits in the little anteroom between the bubble and the locker rooms to walk her to her car.
The pool facility at Regis Jesuit High School, a Catholic school in Aurora, Colorado, is sunk into a small hill next to the parking lot. The walls are inflatable. The deck has a surface like a sidewalk, and there isn’t much of it, only room for a few rows of bleachers for spectators on one side and a bench for the home team on the other. During meets when Franklin is swimming, the volume and pitch of the screaming can blow out eardrums, but when she’s not there, it’s pretty dead inside, and before 5 a.m., when the swimmers arrive for the first of two daily practices, it’s dark. The thin mountain air is cold.
Last December, Delaney Lanker, one of the team’s seniors, wrote a story in the online school paper about swimming for Regis Jesuit. “Practices are long and hard and sometimes boring but there are some perks to having to be up in the morning,” she wrote. “We always get the best parking spots and are the first in the lunch line for breakfast and are never late for school. No matter how hard we try, the smell of chlorine is permanently ingrained on our incredibly dry skin.” Sounds awesome. “Constantly you will hear swimmers complaining about how much they hate it and everyone asks us why we don’t just quit. The reason? Well, we really can’t. It’s a part of our life, it’s part of who we are.”
Usually Franklin is somewhere else. She’s at practice with her club team, the Colorado Stars, or at a meet in Europe, or in Phoenix, performing her duties as grand marshal of the Fiesta Bowl. She’s in Los Angeles at the Golden Globes, or in New York at Glamour‘s Women of the Year awards.
Franklin’s longtime teammate Lanker is accustomed to the attention. When asked about Franklin, Lanker shrugs, a short jerk of her powerful shoulder. “I’ve known her since she was 10,” she says. “Missy to me isn’t just a world-class swimmer.” Lanker has been on Franklin’s club team since they were kids. She is a good swimmer — one of the better high school butterfly racers in Colorado — but she has had to realize her limitations against Franklin’s limitless potential. “Missy has always been fast. She’s always been tall,” says Lanker, who stands only 5 feet.
“When I was younger,” she says, “I was always like, ‘I’m going to beat Missy! I’m going to beat her in the 100 butterfly for as long as I can.’ That was my goal, to keep beating her for as long as I could. She got to her own level.” You have to think this wouldn’t be easy, learning to lose and then losing all the time. It’s not that Lanker doesn’t want to win. She had pulled out a tight win in the 100 butterfly that day. But Lanker, like her teammates, is either resilient or impressively deceptive, or maybe both. “You know, it’s OK,” she said, cheerfulness injected into her voice. “She’s my friend.” The crowd is mostly gone by now and the heat inside the bubble is gone with it. The air is getting colder, prickling Lanker’s bare skin. She looks ready for a shower.
She thinks of her favorite memory, Regis’s victory in the state championships two years ago. “I cried,” Lanker says. “I’ve never cried tears of happiness.”
The home locker room is actually a repurposed ladies room. A pack of little kids stands outside the door, wriggling as they wait to greet Franklin. At one point they hold up their arms to form a tiny arch before abandoning the plan. When she finally comes out they just fall on her, grabbing her waist, hugging her legs.
Abby Cutler takes a little longer to emerge. Her tall, thin body is lost inside her giant red Regis Jesuit parka. She wears the hood up. Cutler and Franklin first met when Cutler was briefly on the Stars and then reunited as freshmen at Regis Jesuit. They appear in each other’s Twitter avatars, a teenager’s declaration of dependence. Cutler has seen up close what it’s like to be Missy Franklin. She has watched the clock so that drug testers will always know where Franklin is. She has heard her stories about meeting movie stars. She went to the Olympic trials last summer with Franklin, though she had to watch the Olympics on TV. “I’ll never be able to get over the fact that she did what she did,” Cutler says. “I’m so proud of her. It’s amazing. That will never go away.”
Their closeness is part of the team’s closeness. High school sports can be tribal. Swimmers have an identity earned by nothing more than effort. “It’s something you really only understand if you’re experiencing it,” Cutler says. “People on the outside don’t really get it, they don’t really understand the work, or how bad it hurts when you don’t get a time, or how good it feels when you do get a time. Only your teammates can understand that.”
Cutler finished sixth in the 200-yard freestyle that day, more than 15 seconds behind Franklin, and fourth in the 500, 14 seconds out of first. Her heart-shaped face is flushed. As she stands in the hallway, ready to leave, she sounds a little defiant. “This meet enforced why we do it and why it’s worth it,” she says. Regis Jesuit easily beat Cherry Creek, winning 11 out of the 12 events that afternoon and finishing with 201 points to 113.
After the Wall Street Journal article, members of the Cherry Creek team reached out to Franklin to tell her the story was wrong. They were happy to have the chance to swim against her. Most high school swimmers are. They want their picture taken with her; they are thrilled by her speed. “I was shocked,” Highlands Ranch freshman Shawna Doughten told the Denver Post after racing her. “She was really fast. She lapped me three or four times. But I was encouraged. She makes you think anyone can do it.”
This is pretty hilarious, but it gets at something about the experience that some high school athletes have. Teams can be wasp’s nests, but they can also give a girl a sense of identity. Resentments are inescapable, but the success of one can ratify the others’ pride. And who’s to say what secret hopes of greatness a young woman can harbor — if not in this, then in something, someday? “We’re very proud of the fact that we do what we do,” Cutler says as she thinks of Regis Jesuit’s state title. “People might not think the achievement is as great if we won the football state title, or if the boys did it, but we know in our hearts what we achieved to get there, and how hard it was. I think that knowledge is enough. You know what I mean? Like I said, it’s hard to explain to someone who wouldn’t know.”
O n February 9, Regis Jesuit won another state championship. “I had a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to swim high school this year,” an emotional Franklin said in a makeshift press conference afterward.
“I had a dome cap, which sometimes you put over your normal cap and your goggles, and I couldn’t put it on,” she said. “Because I knew it was the last time I was going to swim with a Regis cap on my head, and I didn’t want to cover that up.”
The seniors are done, and soon they’ll be gone. Everything will change. It’s a testament to her high school and club teams that Franklin was willing to give up so much to want to be part of a team in college. But the kind of intimacy that these adolescent girls have is much harder to find in any other place, at any other time.
Franklin, of course, will keep swimming, and Lanker has signed on to swim with Northeastern. I asked Cutler if she was going to swim in college, and she answered, “I think so.” Senior teammate Carla Meli will not.
Meli has an open face, large eyes that are the soft brown color of her hair, and a manner and voice that makes her seem gentle. She stood on the deck after the Cherry Creek meet, barefoot and without a towel. I asked her how she would describe herself. “I’d say I’m a swimmer,” she answered, twisting her long tangled hair into a bun. “I think I’ll always be a swimmer.”
This article has been updated to clarify that Missy Franklin turned down money in order to swim for UC-Berkeley; she was not offered that money by the university.