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Sweet 16

The U.S. has found its next teen phenom in the pool, Missy Franklin, who's poised to make a huge splash

At the USA versus Europe Duel in the Pool in Manchester, England, in December 2009, then 14-year-old Missy Franklin was reluctant to join her U.S. teammates in tossing the stuffed bears they had autographed into the crowd. "Nobody knows who I am," she lamented to her parents. "They might throw mine back!"

Anonymity is no longer an issue for the bubbly high school sophomore honors student from Centennial, Colo., who turned 16 on May 10. By earning four individual medals (two gold, one silver and one bronze) at the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix last weekend, Franklin solidified her lead in the Grand Prix series points race—ahead of Olympic stars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte—and further established herself as an international threat in multiple events and the U.S. swim team's most promising rising star. Her winning time of 1:57.66 in Friday's 200-meter freestyle was the 13th-best women's mark in the world this year and first among U.S. swimmers. Franklin also ranks third and fourth, respectively, in the world in the 200- and 100-meter backstrokes, and is among the top 30 in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles.

Franklin's strong 6'1" frame, big hands, size 13 feet and lifetime of training at Colorado's high altitude make for an impressive physical package. But it's her relentlessly positive mental approach that bodes most promisingly for a long career, says Todd Schmitz, her coach with her club team, the Colorado Stars. "Missy has an innate ability to flip the switch between competitor and noncompetitor," he says. "Up until about two heats before her race, she's goofing around and cheering on her teammates. As soon as her race is over, she's back to having fun. At practice, she's the one cheering teammates through a hard set."

Franklin, whose signature saying, according to her parents, is "Best day ever!" has always found joy in the water. The first time she went under the surface, in a swimming class when she was six months old, "the other kids came up screaming," says her mom, D.A., "but Missy came up with a huge smile on her face." At three she was snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean off Maui with her dad, Dick. At five she was named MVP of her summer league team. At 13 she was the second-youngest competitor at the 2008 Olympic trials, swimming in three events.

Three years later she has already qualified for the 2012 trials in nine events and plans to qualify in all 13. "I won't swim them all; I just think it would be super fun to achieve something like that," she says. In the meantime, she has much ahead of her, including her 16th-birthday party at the end of the month—"It'll be a casino dance party; I'm so excited!" she says—and July's world championships in Shanghai, where she'll be swimming the 50- and 200-meter backstroke and likely a relay. "I love representing my country," she says. "I can't wait."

Bring on the stuffed bears.

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Finally Free

Nine months after he tied Josh Schneider for second in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2010 nationals, Cullen Jones earned a spot on the U.S. world championship team by beating Schneider by .04 of a second in a swim-off last Thursday. "I feel like a huge weight is off my chest," says Jones, the U.S. record holder in the event. "The stress of the last year has been unreal."

The long looming duel, which was put off when Schneider broke his hand reaching for the wall in the 100-meter freestyle at nationals, had created tension between the two friends, who both train at SwimMAC Carolina in Charlotte. But after Jones won in a time of 22.24, Schneider thanked him for the opportunity. "I thanked him too," says Jones. "If it wasn't for this race, I wouldn't be anywhere near the shape I'm in now."

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CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS

STROKE OF GENIUS Franklin already ranks among the world's top four swimmers in the backstroke.

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MOHAMED MESSARA/EPA

[See caption above]

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CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS