How do you define a real team player? How about an athlete, hailed as the next (female) Michael Phelps, who will forsake thousands of dollars because she loves being part of a team?
Missy Franklin, a Colorado swimmer, has attracted attention lately as a breakout star. At age 16, many are saying she is as precocious as Michael Phelps was at her age – and the same admirers will be watching her closely at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
A USA Today story noted that as the Games unfold, we’re likely to read about Franklin’s “6-foot-1 height, 6-3 wingspan and size 13 feet, about her Olympic trials debut at age 13, about the uncommon poise she showed while winning five medals (including two relay and the 200-meter backstroke gold) at last year's world championships.”
But in a competitive sports climate where so many athletes – as well as coaches and parents – enter their arena with stars in their eyes, where solitary laps, individual times and records are as good as gold, we’re just as likely to read about how Franklin is actively turning down the money to stay part of her team.
Recently, according to the story, she could be found at a high school dual meet, “flipping a lap counter during the 500-yard freestyle, helping tend to a fellow swimmer's nosebleed, anchoring the 400-yard freestyle relay, then screaming and hugging her Regis Jesuit High School teammates when they learned they had topped perennial state power Cherry Creek High School. “Team is so important to me," she says. "I love being part of a team. It, for me, is one of the best feelings in the world.’"
According to the coverage about Franklin, she seems to be as energized by her high school meets as she was coming home last year from World Cups in Berlin and Moscow with seven victories and her first world record. She's now considered the best in the world at both the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter backstroke.
Ultimately, Missy’s goal is to swim in college, and going pro would render her ineligible to compete at the college level. She’s simply not willing to make the trade.
Says the Wall Street Journal: “Franklin claimed the overall title in USA Swimming's Grand Prix series last summer—and turned down the $20,000 check that came with the trophy.” She followed up that performance by winning five medals, including three golds, at the FINA World Championships in July.
Though it's unclear exactly how much money Franklin could end up forfeiting in the run-up to the Olympics (the latest tally is that she’s already given up around $130,000), Jim Andrews, the senior vice president at IEG, a sponsorship and consulting research firm, said she still could be in line to "pick up a few hundred thousand dollars." Michael Phelps made more than $5 million in endorsements and winnings by going pro as a teen.
Meanwhile, her parents have stayed supportive of her decision to resist going pro as an adolescent: her mother, a doctor, is taking a year-long sabbatical from working with developmentally disabled patients to be her daughter's scheduler and media handler (since hiring an agent would nullify her NCAA eligibility). But her parents have talked to her about how a win at the Olympics could change her life. After winning his record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, Phelps picked up a $1 million bonus from his sponsor Speedo.
"It's like, 'Honey, I know you don't know what a million dollars means, but you need to know that could look after you and your children for years. And you might be in a position where you could earn it right now, before you even finish college,'" her father, Dick, an executive at a clean technologies company, told USA Today.
For now, an email between Franklin and a USA Swimming official – published in a WSJ blog – characterizes her unwavering devotion to team play and her impressive ethics:
Thanks for your participation at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool in Atlanta. We hope that you had a good experience.
As part of the meet, the organizing committee is paying prize money and a $500 expense reimbursement for any out-of-pocket expenses over the course of the trip. Athletes who still have NCAA eligibility must utilize these funds for actual and necessary expenses. Athletes should keep receipts and appropriate documentation surrounding these expenses and must consult their University’s Compliance Officers or the NCAA for more information.
At the meet, you earned $3,375 in first place swims (2 x $1,500) + (1 x $375), along with $3,750 for breaking a world record as part of the medley relay. Adding this together, USA Swimming would be paying you $7,125 + $500.
Please respond to this email whether you will be:
a. accepting all the funds;
b. accepting a portion of the funds (please specify the amount); or
c. declining all of the funds
Thanks very much for your help.
Thank you for your letter about the funds. Unfortunately I will only be allowed to accept $100 to cover for the extra food that I bought In Atlanta and my car parking at [Denver International Airport]. Although USA Swimming provided meals and snacks, I did need some extra late evening pasta and drinks. I do have documentation for these expenses. Missy Franklin
Are you moved by Missy’s commitment to college? Or do you think, in this case, it makes more sense to take the money? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.