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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Elite athletes enjoy competing at high school level

By Melissa Isaacson

When Bruce Springsteen sang of has-beens and their glory days, surely he did not mean kids like Missy Franklin. And no, not because the single was released 10 years before she was born.

As it turns out, Franklin and the handful of teenagers like her who have experienced glory in the form of world records and international fame before they're old enough to vote don't typically walk around the halls of their high schools wearing their Olympic medals.

But some, like bronze medalist Lia Neal, a senior at the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Manhattan, N.Y., proudly sport their school swim team sweatshirts.

The hunger to be "normal" is why Franklin -- she of the five Olympic medals (four of them gold) -- turned down an estimated $5 million in endorsements to compete for her high school's swim team this year and the University of California next year. And it is also why, ironically, no one was more worried about returning to the Regis Jesuit pool than Franklin.

Well aware of the logistical circus created by her past participation in high school swim meets, and the suggestion that she might be taking anything away from her teammates or competitors, the 17-year-old's list of pros and cons for going back this year had plenty of cons.

"Missy felt just sick about it, terrible," said Franklin's mother, D.A. "She felt, 'High school swimming is a place where I can relax and just be Missy, be with my friends on the team and in the state, just have fun and enjoy it.' & She didn't want it to be The Missy Show."

Causing a stir

Even before her epic performance in London this summer, there was an onslaught of attention. When Franklin's all-girls Catholic high school in Aurora, Colo., qualified for the state meet last season, some parents of opposing competitors initially couldn't get tickets. Franklin required a police escort to news conferences and was asked to pose for pictures and sign autographs while standing at the blocks before races.

And though there was just a smattering of resentment outwardly expressed, it still stung.

"Love you Missy, but just to ask . . . Why bother?" wrote powderhoundMJ in the comment section of a Denver Post story on Nov. 28. "That's like me going to my kids' elementary school field day and challenging them in the 50-yard dash. You're going to win by pool lengths, not body lengths."

Or, from The KIMN Chicken, "I'd hate to be the girl that finishes second in the state meet. Seems kind of ridiculous for her to swim against kids that have no chance & "

In the end, however, with the support of Regis Jesuit athletic director John Koslosky, her high school coach Nick Frasersmith and the same teammates and competitors she was afraid to offend and inconvenience, Franklin answered the "Why bother?" question. She decided to rejoin her high school teammates, calling them "my sisters."

Once she was convinced the logistical mess would be worked out, Koslosky helped seal the deal with his top 10 reasons Missy should return to her high school pool.

"Ultimately, it comes down to: Do you want to be part of that team one last time, with girls who you lived your whole life with, before you all go off to college?" Koslosky said. "From a swimming standpoint, does she really need it? Probably not. But as for the human part & you only go to high school once."

Not the only one

While Franklin's accomplishments surely make her a unique example of an elite athlete electing to compete for her high school, there are others. U.S. Olympic teammates Katie Ledecky, 15 -- a gold medalist in London and a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md. -- and Neal are also currently swimming for their high school teams.

Neal has competed on her varsity team since middle school and set two personal bests while competing in high school, one of which (100-yard breaststroke) still stands. She will swim a full schedule this season while training in the same pool with her club team.

"I asked her club coach, 'Look, give me a heads-up when it's time to stop high school swimming and we'll clearly understand," said Brad Dexter, Neal's high school coach. "But she said as long as she was still having fun and still wanted to do it, they supported it."

The fun, say those who have competed on both a prep and elite level, is paramount.

"It's totally an honor to compete at a high level, but it was a cool thing for me being able to play in high school," U.S. Olympic field hockey player Katelyn Falgowski said.

Now 24, Falgowski was on the U.S. World Cup team while playing for St. Mark's High School in Wilmington, Del., and competed in the Beijing Games just after graduation.

"When you're younger and competing at a high level, you tend to be a lot younger than the athletes around you and your life can be hectic," she said. "In high school, you get to compete with your best friends around you and it can provide normalcy."

Falgowski's Olympic teammate Katie O'Donnell, now 24 and at the University of Maryland, played for the U.S. senior national team at 16 while also competing for Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pa. Like other elite athletes juggling their travel schedules, O'Donnell found playing for her high school team made her considerably busier.

"But that was always the treat coming home," O'Donnell said. "You got to play with friends and peers, and other students in your class were able to watch you. The nice thing about being a high school student is that even if you're Missy Franklin with all of her amazing accomplishments, she's still the same person to her friends when she goes back home. It's nice when you can fit right back in when you go back to school."

What's fair?

The idea that it's unfair for an Olympic-caliber athlete to compete on a high school level strikes the Franklins as being just as unfair.

One parent of an opposing swimmer, D.A. Franklin recalled, approached her last year and asked her to "talk to Missy to have her not continue so the other girls can have their day to shine, since Missy has so many other opportunities to shine.

When you're younger and competing at a high level, you tend to be a lot younger than the athletes around you and your life can be hectic. In high school, you get to compete with your best friends around you and it can provide normalcy.

-- Katelyn Falgowski, U.S. field hockey player

"I explained to her that Missy was 16 and that it was really, really important to her to be with her team and swim with the girls she knows and loves, the way she always has in Colorado," Franklin said.

"We received so much support that it outweighed any negative comments we heard. But with the negative ones & I think they lose sight that Missy is just like their child."

Franklin points out that with outside obligations, Missy often had to skip things like school dances and sleepovers that other kids enjoy. "I feel I need to remind people, she misses out on so much, please don't take something else from her," she said.

Gymnast Blaine Wilson was a three-time Olympian (1996, 2000 and '04) and silver medalist, won five consecutive national all-around titles and competed for his high school team. He is outraged by the attitude that somehow being too good should preclude an athlete's participation with his peers.

"That's garbage," said Wilson, 38, who owns his own gym outside Columbus, Ohio. "Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where my daughter is 10 and they don't keep score in her games. But everyone knows. It teaches them to be average. It's no good for our culture; it's no good for anybody.

"I'd say to those parents [who have a problem with Olympians like Franklin competing against their kids in high school], 'Hey, if you want to catch her, put your kids in more swimming classes.' My son is 3 and plays soccer, and if he gets destroyed by a club team when he's older and says, 'Dad, it's unfair,' I'd say 'If you want to play with them, get better.' If a kid who excels wants to play in high school, by all means they should do it."

Koslosky was equally apoplectic.

"As an athletic director, I deal with 14 different sports and in every sport, every state has a best kid," he said. "LeBron James was built like a man, but do you penalize these top athletes for wanting to represent their school at the highest level they can compete at that time? If the Olympics were during high school swimming, of course Missy would go to the Olympics. But the weekend of the state meet, she will be a senior in high school and that will be the highest level she can compete in at that time.

"If people like Missy back away and you're the girl who wins the state championship in the 100 backstroke, isn't there an asterisk, 'Yes, but Missy didn't swim'? By the same token, wouldn't it be awesome to say 'I came in second to Missy Franklin'? That's a better story to tell your grandchildren."

Being a part of something

Wilson's high school team won four straight state titles, though he did not make his first Olympic team until after he arrived at Ohio State. "I turned down going pro, which would've meant $75,000, to go back to college so I could win one more national championship for Ohio State," said Wilson, who won six individual NCAA titles while helping the Buckeyes to three team titles.

He competed in high school because Ohio schools had strong gymnastics programs at the time but also, Wilson said, because of the tradition.

"I went to the same high school [St. Francis DeSales in Columbus] as both my parents," he said. "All my aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides went there. That history was important to me. I was proud to be a part of it.

"We didn't mature until later, so at that time, you didn't know [if you were good enough for the Olympics]. We got up at six in the morning to train, but we also went to school dances and football games on Friday nights. We were pretty normal."

Wilson had three fellow club gymnasts on his high school team. But the idea that one athlete, even one of Olympic caliber, can carry a team to a state championship rubs some the wrong way.

"It's nice for me to be able to put some other girls who may not be the fastest on Katie's relay teams, because they'd never get that opportunity," said Ledecky's high school coach, Bob Walker. "Likewise though, when other teams come in, there's a target on our back that they can put together the four fastest girls and Katie can only control 25 percent of the race."

As Frasersmith said: "One swimmer does not a team championship make."

Ledecky's and Franklin's high school coaches also point out that both girls' relay teams have been beaten, and Regis Jesuit has won just one state title with Franklin, who can only swim in four events. Falgowski said her high school field hockey team finished last in its division one season.

Another thing to keep in mind, said Todd Schmitz, Franklin's Colorado Stars club team coach, is that "You're not dealing with ideal race conditions in high school meets." The scenarios that add to the high school experience -- like the lack of a warm-up and warm-down, the size and depth of a pool and the fact that elite swimmers do not taper for high school meets -- only adds to the pressure that they turn in world-class times.

"Missy told me, 'I know everyone is going to be expecting me to break records, so I'm going to have to really dig deep,'" Franklin's father, Dick, said. "She's living with that too." And that's considering the fact that Missy did not take a notable break after the Olympics and is still training six hours a day.

The notion that somehow she can get away with performing at less than 100 percent and still win easily, said her coaches and both D.A. and Dick Franklin, a former Canadian Football League player, is simply not a consideration.

"No way she ever does anything other than her best," Dick said. "It's very innate and she has always been that way, that it doesn't matter whether it's [12-time Olympic medalist] Natalie Coughlin next to you or Susan Smith from Heritage Greens High, or whether two million people are watching you or 20, it's always about swimming your personal best and leaving it all in the pool. Missy has been like that since she was 5 years old.

"If someone thought she was dogging it, that would be an insult to all her teammates and competition."

Building the team

Franklin's, Ledecky's and Neal's high school coaches said swimming next to Olympians often raises the level of their teammates' performances.

"Missy brings incredible talent to us, obviously," Frasersmith said, "but to be honest, it's probably one of the last reasons I want her back. It's what she brings to the team as far as personality. I think the world has basically gotten to know Missy, what she's about and what she stands for, and that's exactly what she is. What you see is what you get. She's a team player through and through. And when she's in the pool racing, I know our team wants to step up and swim faster."

That team feeling is something Olympic swimmer and two-time medalist Elizabeth Beisel said she coveted while competing for North Kingstown High School in Rhode Island for four years.

Beisel, now 20 and an NCAA champion for the University of Florida, was 15 and the youngest member of the 2008 U.S. Swimming team when she made her Olympic debut, and remembers her club coach allowing her to be a kid.

"I'd go back and forth but she'd let me skip club practice for pasta dinners with the high school team and team-bonding things," Beisel said. "And it was really fun because it was so much different than club swimming. It was such a low-pressure thing for me. It was easier to relax and have fun with friends. It was much more enjoyable."

Like the others, Beisel said she also remained loyal to her high school team.

"I definitely did it because I loved it," she said. "But I also did it to show how thankful I was for how much North Kingstown High School did for me, allowing me to miss so much school for the Olympics and traveling all the time, and a great way to do it was by competing for them."

Franklin's participation in high school meets over the last three years has helped bring more exposure to Colorado swimming. This year, the payback is a more emotional one.

"Colorado has been damn good to us, very supportive," Dick said. "We've had a lot of help from everyone in the city and state, and a lot of people have not had the chance to see Missy swim.

"She'll be leaving for California in August and could spend the next decade in California. She could be out of Colorado, period. For our neighbors and friends to see her swim one last time in person, there's a certain poetry in that. It's gratifying to everyone for her to complete that cycle."