This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
AS SHE WAITED to begin her heat in the 100-meter backstroke final at last summer's Olympic Games, Missy Franklin could feel her nerves taking over. She couldn't stop thinking that the rest of her life would revolve around what would happen in the next 59 seconds. But before the pressure crippled her, she reverted to a relaxation trick that has never failed.
"I thought about my parents," says Franklin, now 18. "I thought about how much they love me, how much I love them, and how, no matter what happens in the next minute, none of that will change. Then I took a deep breath. And the pressure was gone."
Thinking about Mom and Dad as a source of calm isn't exactly the norm for high school athletes. Any youth coach will tell you that overzealous parents are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to kids reaching their athletic potential. In fact, in dozens of interviews with youth athletes, parents and coaches for her upcoming book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman didn't once hear children mention using their parents to help them relax.
"They talk about their friends and their teammates and prayer or lucky charms," Friedman says. "But not their parents."
There is no blueprint for how to raise a four-time Olympic champion, much less one who earns nearly straight A's and spends her free time visiting children's hospitals. Yet it is tempting to study the Franklins for signs of a formula. Surely their example offers some best practices, or at least a short list of dos and don'ts. Or does it all boil down to a few favorable circumstances and a whole lot of luck?
IT'S A SUN-SPLASHED morning in May, and the Franklins are heading to Children's Hospital Colorado to visit kids fighting for their lives. Missy and her dad are in typical form, teasing each other along the drive. Dick Franklin has spent most of his life as a successful corporate executive, including stints at Reebok and Head, where he saw firsthand how parental pressure can smother promising youth talent. Today he's teasing Missy about how great his life was before she arrived. The multiple houses, the Porsche, the vacations to Tahiti, Hawaii and Key West.
"And then this happened," Dick says, motioning to the Olympic champion in the backseat.
This was a child Dick and his wife, DA, never thought would be possible. Eighteen years ago, the Franklins were both busy, career-driven 40-something professionals who had accepted the fact that parenthood wouldn't be part of their story. But on May 10, 1995, Melissa Jeanette Franklin was born. And Dick and DA made a pledge: They'd always do what was best for their little girl. DA, once a family doctor, cut back on her medical consulting gig. Dick limited his hours and travel too.
They set out to create a bond that was absent from both of their childhoods in Canada. DA's father battled alcoholism after returning home from World War II, and her mom died in a plane crash when DA was 13. Dick, the oldest of four, moved often as his dad jumped from job to job. A prep football star in high school, he lamented having to prove himself every season at a new school.
"I can't really name one time when my father told me, 'I love you,'" Dick says. "I told myself that's not going to happen when I have a child."
For all the love and affection Dick and DA have showered on Missy, their sentimental daughter has cooed right back. It's Missy who asks to cuddle with her dad after training. Missy who grabs her father's pinkie when they walk together at the mall. Two years ago, on New Year's Eve, she was home by 10:30 -- at her request -- so she could celebrate with Mom and Dad. What might seem suffocating or overbearing to some is normal for the Franklins.
"We're making it cool to love your parents again," Missy says.
To this day, Dick and DA have never taken a vacation without their daughter. DA still washes Missy's clothes and folds them neatly on her bed. She packs Missy's swim bag before each practice. Mom and Dad post their daughter's schedule online for drug testers and help with the boxes of fan mail.
Of course, this kind of support doesn't come free. Dick's success as an executive and DA's work as a doctor gave the Franklins a luxury many families with gold medal dreams don't have: Instead of worrying about the bills, the Franklins focused exclusively on what they thought was best for Missy. They never let their daughter get a job, instead urging her to concentrate on swimming and having fun with her friends.
By many standards, Missy is spoiled. Her parents have built their lives around her needs and her schedule. And that approach would have backfired with most kids. But somehow, Missy hasn't devolved into a self-centered egomaniac. Instead, she's the exact opposite.
"It's hard to understand," says Jack Roach, the head coach for the U.S. junior national team. "You would think you'd be meeting this girl who thinks the world revolves around her. And now you have to think twice because if that's what they did, boy did it work."
IT SHOULE BE reassuring for any parent to know that even experts make mistakes. For the better part of the past decade, Larry Lauer, formerly of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State, has studied the forces that tug on youth athletes. And yet there he was with his daughter recently, rewarding her with ice cream after tennis practice, listening as she said, "I got this because I played well, right?"
"I was like, 'No, no, no. You got this because you tried hard,'" Lauer said. "I had done everything to avoid this contingency to reward her for playing well, and she had made that connection all on her own."
More often than not, parents are making mistakes without even realizing it. In Lauer's 2005 study of elite youth tennis players, he found that roughly 30% of parents were unintentionally acting in a way that troubled their children. It could be as simple as the way a father holds his face in his hands after his son strikes out, or as complex as an up-and-coming tennis star, seeing the money his parents are shelling out for coaching and travel, feeling pressure to deliver on the investment. And everyone knows the parent who lives vicariously through his or her children, using their on-field success as a reflection of self-worth.
Whether influenced by Dick's corporate experiences seeing young athletes crash and burn or being older parents or something else altogether, the Franklins always tried not to get caught up in the race to athletic insanity. Dick and DA knew their primary job was to keep out of their daughter's way.
"We really never put any pressure on her," Dick says. "Win, lose or draw, it was, 'Great race, sweetheart. Now let's go have dinner.'"
Missy took notice. "Swimming is tough enough. The last thing you need is your parents asking you what went wrong," she says. "You need a hug. And my mom and dad have always been there with that hug."
They also put an immense amount of trust in Todd Schmitz, Missy's coach since she was 7. Todd was just 23 when Missy started swimming for his Colorado Stars swim club, and she was immediately drawn to the silly tricks he used to keep things light, like handstands in the water. Not once did the Franklins think they could find someone better, even when other parents asked whether they planned to move to a swimming-rich state like California or Texas.
"We were just like, 'Huh?'" DA says. "We weren't going to move anywhere."
Yet despite their parents' best efforts, young athletes are never immune to the pressure of big-time competition. In 2009, when Missy was 14, some thought she was ready to compete at the U.S. trials in hopes of earning a spot at the world championship in Rome. Not Schmitz. Four weeks before the meet, he pulled Missy aside and told her just that. "And she looked at me like someone who had just had a 100-pound weight lifted off her shoulders," Schmitz says. "She was like, 'Oh, thank you.'"
Several weeks later, at junior nationals, Missy's time in the 100 free was fast enough that it would have put her on the world championship team. But there were no regrets. "Trying to qualify for worlds at 14 could have ruined her," Roach says. "And it's a tribute to Todd, Dick and DA that they didn't try to hurry up the process."
Even after Missy won three golds, a silver and a bronze at the 2011 world championship in Shanghai, even after NBC made her one of the faces of its London marketing campaign, the Franklins would still say "If she makes the team" every time they talked about London. When people began asking how the Franklins planned to handle Missy's 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke double, they shrugged.
"I can't tell you how many people came up to us and were like, 'What are you telling Todd? What do you want him to do?'" DA says. "But it wasn't our decision. Todd and Missy decide what to do."
Says Dick: "It wouldn't have even dawned on me to say something. It's not our place to get involved."
WHAT HAS WORKED so well for the Franklins so far, of course, is not necessarily what will work well for them moving forward. In a few months, the Franklins will be forced to let her go. Missy will be off to UC Berkeley. There she'll have to learn to do her own laundry. Make her own bed. Cook her own food. It's an adjustment every freshman goes through -- perhaps Missy more than most.
Some see a reality check on the horizon for Missy, including her new coach, Teri McKeever. "It's very unusual for someone that age to be that comfortable in her own skin," McKeever says. "And yet I still believe no one can be that happy. And that probably will crack at some point. And I want to be there for that."
Whether or not that day comes, McKeever's presence will be critical. For more than a decade, Dick and DA have trusted Schmitz to take care of the swimming. Now they will look to McKeever to do that while also filling the void their absence will leave.
It didn't have to be this way. After she returned home from London, Missy was offered millions in incentives from corporate America to spurn college and turn pro. She could have kept swimming for Schmitz and stayed closer to Mom and Dad. But Missy wanted an experience that money couldn't buy. She wanted to swim in college. And Dick and DA, who plan to attend many of Missy's Cal meets, weren't going to stand in her way. So after the world championship in Barcelona ("if she makes the team," DA says) and a family vacation to Canada, the Franklins will load up the SUV and make the trip to the first step in the rest of Missy's life. Just don't ask whether they're prepared to say goodbye.
"We don't talk about that," Missy says. "It's going to be awful."