Good fortune has allowed me to witness – in person – some amazing events from the world of swimming. I was lucky enough to be present when Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and when he captured his final gold medal (No. 18 overall) at the 2012 Games in London. Those are two moments I won’t soon forget.
Nor will I forget a moment which happened this afternoon, away from the competition pool and without any Olympic strings attached. This latest moment unfolded in a classroom at McGinn Elementary School in New Jersey, with much less fanfare than at an Olympiad. It took place without the glare of NBC cameras or any press conferences. Yet, it was a meaningful time.
During the last Olympiad, Missy Franklin had five medals draped around her neck, four of the golden variety. Last summer, at the end of the World Championships in Barcelona, she wore six gold medals, a total which tied a female record for the most won in a major international competition. And on January 7, 2014, Franklin added a mythical gold medal to her collection for the characteristics of kindness, inspiration and good will, among the other positive attributes she possesses.
Where is this piece going? Hang in there.
Since leaving the world of sports journalism on a full-time basis at the end of 2009, I’ve spent the past four years working as a media specialist in the field of education. After three years in one district, I’ve settled into a new district this year, one which I hope to be a part of until retirement knocks. Being surrounded by tremendous colleagues and energetic and hard-working students (kindergarten through fourth grade) makes going to work each day an easy task. And stories like the following only add to enjoyment.
A little more than a month ago, a fourth-grade student named Lily Hughes took part in an after-school program called the Fearless Dragons Writing Club. It was overseen by Andrea Felcone and exposed to the students to different types of writing while providing additional time to hone their writing skills. In one of the final assignments, students were challenged to craft the start of a story in which they time-traveled to meet one of their idols.
Hughes, a 10-and-under swimmer who has qualified for the New Jersey State Championships, wrote about racing Franklin at the 2012 Games. (Her story can be read below in its entirety). Throughout the story, Hughes had positive experiences with Franklin, and even defeated her for a gold medal. At the end, Hughes indicated it was all a dream, until she turned and saw an Olympic medal on her pillow.
While Hughes’ story was well-written and creative, it also exhibited a passion and sense for how she idolizes Franklin. For that reason, I decided to send the story to D.A. Franklin, Missy’s mom. Once the story was in the hands of D.A. Franklin, everything took off. First, she forwarded the story to Missy, who is in the middle of her freshman year at the University of California-Berkeley.
Showing incredible generosity, the Franklin family offered to send Hughes an autographed picture. Then, Missy took things a step further when she decided to mail Hughes a medal she won as an 18-and-under at the AT&T Short Course Nationals. Matching the event from Hughes’ story, it was a medal from the 200 individual medley.
When the package arrived at school, smiles abounded in the main office. First, there was appreciation for Franklin’s kindness and the way her gesture spoke volumes about her character. Second, we knew the package was going to a deserving student. After lunch, McGinn’s principal, Dr. Sasha Slocum, arranged for a presentation in Hughes’ classroom. The fourth-grader was thrilled to first open the autographed picture. When she then opened the box on her desk, her look of disbelief was priceless. Her classmates, too, were thrilled.
Since breaking onto the national and international stages as one of swimming’s rising stars, Missy Franklin’s effervescent smile and bubbly personality have been a calling card. While Franklin obviously knows how to get the job done from an athletic standpoint, she’s equally competent at giving back to her fans (in a big way in Hughes’ case) and providing inspiration to youngsters who envision competing on a global stage at some point in the future.
The fact that D.A. Franklin coordinated the generous gesture provides a pretty clear picture of the household in which Missy was raised. Simply, D.A. and Dick Franklin raised a daughter who was taught to be caring, humble and giving. How else can you explain one of the world’s finest female athletes – regardless of sport – taking the time to reach out to a fourth-grader across the country?
The future for Missy Franklin figures to be filled with many more medals, Olympic and otherwise. She’s one of the biggest talents to ever come through the sport on the women’s side and there is no reason to believe she’ll be slowing down any time soon. But going forward, I have a feeling that when Missy Franklin’s name comes up, the educator in me will first remember the look on a student’s face when she was treated to an amazing surprise by one of her heroes.
It’s a safe bet Lily Hughes will remember the day, too.
Here is the story by McGinn Elementary School fourth-grade student Lily Hughes about meeting her idol, Missy Franklin.
“Are you getting ready?” asked mom. Lily had a big meet that day. She was going to swim her favorite event, the I.M., in the state championships. “Yes, I am getting my cap on!” yelled Lily. Just as her mom was coming up the stairs, Lily’s room started to spin. “What is happening?” screamed Lily. When the room stopped swimming Lily was so confused. Lily looked around and she could not figure out where she was.
“Are you swimming today?” asked a man who was all dressed in white. Lily looked down and saw that she had on a bathing suit. “Umm, I guess so,” answered Lily. “Do you know what you are swimming?” “Umm, I’m not sure where I am so I am not sure what I am swimming,” said Lily. “OK, let’s find out,” answered the man in white.
Together they looked through the program. Then they found it. It was on the very last page. “That event is coming up soon,” said the man in white. “Great! Before you leave, can I ask a question?” Sure,” said the man. “Where am I?” asked Lily. “Look up,” said the man. Lily looked up and saw the viewing seats were filled with excited spectators holding signs. Then she heard a familiar voice, a voice she had heard many times on TV. Lily’s mouth fell open.
Lily was in shock. Standing right in front of her was the person she could not take her eyes off for an entire week in 2012. A person she had seen in magazines. It was her idol Missy Franklin. “Are you swimming in this race?” asked Missy. “Umm, yes,” Lily said, with her voice shaking. “Well then let’s get going!” replied Missy.
“Take your mark…beep.” Lily’s heart was beating fast. Missy as usual had a great start, but Lily was right there with her. Missy’s streamline was like a torpedo and Lily stayed with her. Another stroke and a great turn. Lily could see that she was not very far behind Missy. The third part of the race was breaststroke and that was Lily’s favorite stroke. Lily managed to catch up to the best swimmer in the world! If she could just hang on through the freestyle.
The last two laps went by in a blur. Lily was so excited she thought her heart would burst. Lily reached for the wall at the end of the race and just as she touched she started to feel the room spinning again.
Lily’s eyes shot open and she was back in her room hugging her swim team towel. “Wow, that was a great dream! But I wonder who won?” Lily rolled over to get out of bed. Lying on her pillow beside her was a gold medal and a note that said, “Great race. Keep swimming,” signed Missy Franklin.