Exhausted Eloquence

by Casey Barrett

Coughlin to Franklin, passing the post-race torch… 

How many times have you cringed? You’ve just watched a great one, a record breaking display of toughness and talent. The swimmers climb from the pool and then Dan Hicks sends it down to Andrea Kremer. A word from our champion…

It’s so painful sometimes. As awe-inspiring as they can be in the water, the post-race interviews can be hard to watch. So often it’s a panting cliché-fest, punctuated by a flood of ‘like’ and ‘um’ and utterly empty expressions of joy. It is what it is (to follow with another cliché), and it’s not like we’re watching them for their eloquence. We’re watching because of what they do in the water. It’s not entirely fair to expect that brilliance to extend on deck in front of a microphone. But that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

Now cut to a just turned 17-year-old, braces fresh off, pressure of the world on her broad shoulders. She should be a giggling, shrugging, she’s-just-young mess in those interviews. Yet, 17-year-old Missy Franklin has emerged as the most eloquent swimmer on the U.S. Olympic Team. Her responses to post-race questions don’t seem real. They’re so pitch perfect it’s like they were scripted.

Tonight she became an Olympian for the first time. That seems strange, considering she’s already the most hyped female swimmer in America. But until she touched the wall first in the 100 backstroke (less than 20 minutes after swimming her 200 free semi-final), Missy Franklin could not yet call herself an Olympian. That should all be a bit overwhelming for the girl. You wouldn’t know it when she was put on the spot, panting post-race, by Andrea Kremer.

There was appreciation; there were complete sentences; there was pure joy; and there was the humble payoff to her inspiration, Natalie Coughlin, the woman she had just officially surpassed as the new face of the American women’s Team.

Coughlin is having a rough meet thus far in Omaha. Still seeking an Olympic berth, it now seems likely that she will be appearing in London only as a member of the women’s 4 x 100 free relay. (She might be off her game, but there’s no way she’s not in the top six in the 100 free…) This will put her in the role of elder stateswoman who’s mostly off stage, there to offer sage wisdom. She could not have a more worthy successor.

I don’t mean in the water. Sure, Coughlin and Franklin share many similarities in the pool. They’re both all-time backstrokers who can also swim almost anything else. (But breaststroke!) They’re a pair physical geniuses, coaches’ dreams who make it look easy. But they might have even more in common out of the water.

Ever since she burst on the scene as a teen phenom herself, Coughlin has stood out for her eloquence. Clearly smarter than the average (Cal) Bear, her post-race interviews were always a pleasure. She just had it, an intuitive sense of the sound-byte. In her interviews with Andrea and others, she actually said something. It was never empty jock-speech drivel, which is mostly what these interviews are all about.

Now enter Missy Franklin. No agent, still an amateur, so one has to figure she’s never had much media training. She just gets it. Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Frankin’s astonishing eloquence in these interviews is simply due to the fact that she’s being genuine. She’s grateful, she’s good, and she’s thrilled to be in this position. End of story. How hard is that to express?

Actually, very. I’ve been paid to write the words for smart men and women as they stand in front of the camera. It’s not that these commentators can’t think or speak for themselves, it’s just that they can often use a hand. An expert behind the curtain to serve up the sharp lines and the exhaustive research. Speaking on live TV in front of millions of people is no easy thing. Especially when your heart is pumping 180 beats a minute and your family is crying and your friends are hugging and a broadcast network is positioning you as a face of its billion dollar investment…

Maybe Missy Franklin is aware of all this, or maybe she’s still too young to really grasp what’s swirling all around her. No matter. When she exits the pool, there is no better representative of this sport. Tonight, right after she spoke to Andrea Kremer, I texted a friend in the NBC production truck. I wrote: “I could not sit down and script better quotes from Franklin.” He just texted me back.

He wrote: “She’s a superstar in every sense.”