"Touch The Wall" - A Feature Documentary on Missy Franklin and Kara Lynn Joyce


Apart from the utterance of “Missy”, I doubt there was a word which was spoken more frequently than “fun” in the documentary, Touch the Wall, which chronicled the travels and travails of Missy Franklin and Kara Lynn Joyce in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Trials and beyond.

But in addition to "fun", the movie presented an enlightening comparison between high-school wonder-phenom, Missy Franklin, and two-time Olympian and four-time Olympic silver-medalist, Kara Lynn Joyce, the aging veteran of two Olympics already, with four Olympic silver medals in her collection. 

What surfaces time and again throughout the 100-minute feature documentary is that word: Fun. Missy Franklin enjoys the experience of living in general, and swimming in particular.  And if you've swum competitively in the past, you can also appreciate the "fun" she has in her training - that somewhat euphoric experience of pushing past limits and boundaries; at one point in the movie she even says directly, “I love the feeling of seeing how far I can push my body”.

The documentary opens just as Joyce has left her post-graduate swimming program in California to join the (very) typical age group program where Franklin was training.  She acknowledges that many will think she's nuts - a post-graduate in her mid-20s, moving from swimming hotbed - California - to Colorado to swim in an age-group-only program.

So, why do it, then?

As Joyce expressed, she figured it could be mutually beneficial. She could provide some mentorship to Franklin on being a world-class athlete, while Franklin might be able to re-kindle within Joyce that sense of fun, thrill, and excitement for the sport of swimming.

The two of them getting along from the outset.  And as Missy continues to excel, breaking records and winning World Championship medals, Kara Lynn is pretty much flat-lined, not getting worse, but also not improving - and certainly not at the rate that will get her onto her third Olympic team.  She recognizes that the club's Head Coach Todd Schmitz's primary attention is on the young star, Missy, and she understands that, but at the same time, Kara Lynn just feels like her needs as an athlete are not being met. 

It finally blows up at a training camp in Florida, where everyone involved deserves a tonne of credit for permitting their raw emotions and feelings to be captured and shared.  It's uncomfortable to watch, as both coach (Schmitz) and swimmer (Joyce) have it out on the pool deck about what they're working to accomplish - with each of them being brutally honest.  And some big decisions and actions coming from that confrontation. 

(Spoiler alert - not sure this is warranted, being that everything depicted happened 2-3 years ago, but if you want to go in "clean", you've been forewarned).

The money quote of the movie for me, though, which hit home what a truly decent, generous, and thoughtful young woman Missy Franklin is, comes near the end, where Kara Lynn and Missy are back in Missy’s hometown outside of Denver after the Olympics, and preparing for a “Welcome home! / Congratulations!”- type of event from the town’s leaders.  

Kara Lynn tells the story of how she facetiously calls up Missy to ask what she’s going to where, you know, because they can’t wear the same thing, just in case someone mixes up who won the four gold medals in London, and who tied for 16th in one event (Joyce’s sole result).

And Missy said to her: "I’d be honoured if people thought I'd tied for 16th place at the Olympics, because that's just amazing!"

And, just in case you missed it when the cameras caught Missy's reaction after Kara Lynn had qualified for London, you know that Missy's response could not have been more sincere, genuine, and heartfelt.

A personal aside:  After NBC inundated us with "all Missy all the time" (unless we were talking Phelps or Lochte) in the prelude to and during London2012, I knew that she was being portrayed as exceptionally personable, likable, pleasant, exuberant…all the warm-fuzzy characteristics we’d want in our sporting heros. 

I also knew that NBC was great at crafting such personalities - that’s what sells!  

And then last year at the Mel Zajac meet (the 2015 edition of which runs at UBC this coming weekend - May 22-24), Missy and her Cal-Berkley (college) team were in attendance and competing.  And so I got to watch Missy when the cameras weren’t on, and she was just hanging with her buddies, or preparing for races, talking with her coach - everything that swimmers do.  

And, almost surprisingly, it turns out that NBC had added absolutely zero polish to Missy Franklin.  She could not have been more engaging with anyone who approached her, or with her teammates, or with anyone who interviewed her - there was no "on/off" switch on her delightful personality; indeed, it seems somewhat incongruous to see arguably the best female swimmer in the world "loosening up" outside the pool by having a cartwheel contest with her friends - laughing the whole time.

One more quote from Missy, when asked by NBC what medal count she was hoping for, or the events she wants to win at Olympic Trials.  She said (and again, the way she says these things, it’s not like so many sports figures who have been coached to “say the right thing”…she’s endearingly honest and sincere): "It's not about winning for me; it's just [about] going out there and learning."

That's just brilliant!

Another take-away, again from Joyce:  She had already won four Olympic silver medals, from 2004 and 2008. Yet at the end of this piece, she spoke of how, people might think she's disappointed in her results from London: "When people ask if I won a medal and I say, "no"..., I don't have enough time to tell them how proud I am just to have gone.
"Being there - that was my win."

I was blown away by the fact that she was speaking in such a way that I had to remind myself…(and felt like reminding her):  Girl - you’ve already won FOUR OLYMPIC MEDALS!  And yet, I could tell that she took far more pride in what she accomplished in 2012 (tied for 16th), than she did in those medals, all of which were won on relays.  I'm guessing that her knowing that her placing in 2012 was hers and hers alone (with all of the support of those around her, of course), is what makes it special for her.

And one last comment on the unsung heroes of this story:  Missy's parents - Dick and DA - are to be commended for eschewing the pressure and "conventional wisdom" to move to a swimming hotbed like California.  Instead, they made the decision for Missy to stay in a situation where, to quote DA (Missy's mother): "she was happy, she had her friends, she was doing well in school...she and her coach had a fantastic relationship...there seemed no need to move."

In watching their interactions with Missy, there's absolutely no mistaking that they are intensely proud of their daughter, as their daughter first and foremost, and as a successful swimmer almost parenthetically.  I have  no doubt that they would be just as proud and happy for Missy if the crowing achievement of her swimming career was tying for 16th at her high-school meet.

If you have the opportunity to see the movie - go.  If not, you can pre-order the DVD / Blu-ray here.

Big thanks to Richmond Rapids Swim Club for their extraordinary effort to bring the movie to Canada and provide me (and a few hundred others) the opportunity to see the movie on the big-screen.  It was a great show.