Olympic hero Missy Franklin could have gone pro after London.
She was the breakout star of the 2012 Games, winning four gold medals and setting two world records.
But the college experience — one as normal as could be imagined for an international celebrity — isn’t something she’s prepared to give up just to join the workforce.
So, Franklin’s college swimming career began Friday for Cal, and it kicked off in San Luis Obispo at Cal Poly’s King and Queen of the Pool meet.
“One of the things I love about swimming,” said Franklin, who first learned to swim at age 5, “is it’s always been a part of who I am, but also a big part of who I am is being myself. And I really don’t want them to interact with each other in a way where swimming takes away from who I am.
“If swimming kind of changes my life a little bit, I may not appreciate it as much, but when I’m still just being me and being that goofy 18-year-old I’ve been my whole life and just enjoying swimming and just loving every second of, that’s the reason why I swim.”
Perhaps a surprise to the seated spectators at Anderson Aquatics Center and the Franklin fans lining the fence surrounding the four-year-old Olympic quality facility, Franklin failed to win the crown.
In a two-team pentathlon comprised of 100-yard distances of all four strokes as well as a 400 individual medley, Franklin’s combined time was 4 minutes, 43.22 seconds. That was 12-hundreths of a second behind fellow Golden Bears freshman and medley specialist Celina Li, who was sixth in the 200-meter IM at the last U.S. Olympic Trials.
Franklin was far from the only Olympian representing Cal. Sophomore Rachel Bootsma, last year’s Queen, was part of the U.S. medley relay team that helped Franklin set the world record in that event. Bootsma was fourth overall Friday in 4:53.32.
Elizabeth Pelton, an NCAA backstroke record-holder, was third in 4:48.28, and three other Golden Bears swimmers — Stephanie Au (Hong Kong), Marina Garcia (Spain) and Farida Osman (Egypt) — each represented their home countries in London before swimming Friday.
Cal Poly crowned its own King and Queen of the meet, but both Mickey Mackle (4:28.32) and Jill Jones (5:04.03) placed outside of the top 10 overall.
Still, the event provides exposure for the Mustangs program, whose men compete in the Pac-12 and the women are members of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Cal Poly swimmers said Friday’s turnout was the largest crowd they’d seen at the facility, which was built in 2009 and features Olympic dimensions and state-of-the-art drain-off system.
With the meet being Franklin’s first as a collegian, the meet has also received notoriety from a few national news outlets.
“For our team and notoriety on collegeswimming.com, it’ll be a big thing,” Mustangs head coach Tom Milich said. “Cal Poly will be recognized along with Cal.
“Any time you can bring world-class athletes into the community, it’s good for the sport. For our sport, it happens that Cal’s loaded with them. We’ll continue to do this meet as long as they keep coming.”
The meet began in 2009 as a quasi co-intrasquad dual between the Golden Bears and Mustangs.
Milich and Cal women’s coach Teri McKeever forged a friendship while they both coached at Fresno State in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The original intent for the King/Queen meet was to have the venues rotate between Berkeley and San Luis Obispo every year, but with an aging facility soon to be replaced on the Cal campus, the coaches agreed to keep Cal Poly as the host venue.
The men joined the meet for 2010, and both programs foresee the date being an annual event on future schedules.
The Golden Bears enjoyed lunch in downtown San Luis Obispo after the meet and stay in nearby Pismo Beach, where the team can get in some beach workouts before returning home.
Cal won the women’s NCAA team title in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The men won national championships in 2011 and 2012. The Golden Bears recruit nationally and internationally.
For the incoming freshmen, this is often their first big taste of California, McKeever said, and the aim is to keep it that way.
Franklin, a life-long Colorado resident, had never been to the Central Coast but does have a cousin who attends Cal Poly.
“It’s a gorgeous pool,” Franklin said, “and especially coming from Colorado, anytime I get to swim outside, I think ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so great.’ I’m obviously still working on my tan, but that’s OK. It’s beautiful, and I had a blast.”
She finished up her swims, spent five minutes answering questions from the media, signed a few autographs, posed for a couple of pictures and was on her way.
If the most recent FINA World Championships, where Franklin won a record six gold medals, are an indication, further Olympic conquests lie ahead.
Franklin will try to experience this and next season as would any other collegiate swimmer before a planned pro turn leading up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Her first college meet, and every experience Franklin has from now until then are limited engagements.
“I was a student and athlete 30 years ago,” McKeever said, “and it still is a really important piece of who I am and what I do now. It’s pretty special.”