Swimming is the Same Anywhere: Touch The Wall Review

By Erin Quinn

“Swimming is the same anywhere. You get on the blocks. You dive in. Your only goal is to touch the wall before anyone else.” –Kara Lynn Joyce,  Three-time Olympian for Team USA and multiple NCAA Champion for Georgia.

An off-beat film house in Soho was packed filled to capacity this past Sunday evening for the New York City premiere of Touch the Wall—a documentary that focuses on the journey of two amazing female swimmers—teen phenom Missy Franklin and veteran sprint star, Kara Lynn Joyce, as they train together with the goal of making USA’s 2012 London Olympic team.

Most familiar with swimming know Franklin’s basic story.  She was a teenager who made the Olympics, won several gold medals, set a world record, and still swam for her Regis Jesuit High School Varsity team in Colorado. She also refused to go professional and make truck loads of money so that she could swim in college (UC Berkeley), and still has an infectious smile and an unending sense of gratitude that could light up the darkest of rooms.

If you don’t follow swimming, then you still probably know the name “Missy Franklin.” She is not yet “branded” like a Michael Phelps or a Ryan Lochte, as she is still an amateur swimmer. But, that shouldn’t take much longer as she continues to compete for not only Team USA but for her beloved “Cal Bears,” and was the one of Team USA’s most enthusiastic participants in their Olympic Swimming “Call Me Maybe” video that went viral in 2012 en route to London.

Despite the fact that Kara Lynn Joyce has made three Olympic teams in the span of 12 years, securing four silver medals and is the only female in NCAA history to win the NCAA Championship title in both the 50 and 100 yard freestyle 4 years in a row, it’s likely that you do not know her story. But, after you see Touch the Wall, you will and you’ll be happy that you did.

The film, directed and produced by independent filmmakers, Grant Barbeito and Cristo Brock, opens with Joyce and Franklin in a random tattoo parlor with Franklin’s mom, worrying if the yellow in the Olympic rings tattoo will show up on her pale daughter’s skin. Joyce is afraid of needles and despite having competed in her third Olympics has yet to take the needle-plunge much to the chagrin and pressure of her younger teammate, Franklin.

This scene sets the tone of an authentic and real look at what the life of a world-class athlete looks like. No bells and whistles, no air-brushing, just two, unusually tall and translucent girls fulfilling a promise to get the Olympic rings tattooed on their bodies if they both made the 2012 Olympic team.

The film then goes to shots of Franklin and Joyce training with paddles, snorkels, chasing the black line, over and over again. Interspersed are clips of them in bikinis and fins in a tropical setting whipping their legs like mermaids, swimming alongside dolphins, smiling at the underwater cameras, happy, alive, their aqua-spirits unleashed.

This cinematography alone could win any number of awards for Touch the Wall, as water’s bend and reflection, clarity and obscurity is a medium when combined with the likes of Franklin and Joyce is a visual symphony of its own.

But then it takes a turn. It takes us back, way back to when Franklin was just a 14-year old, pre-braces, cute as a button sitting on a diving board at her club pool in the suburbs of Denver, talking to the camera.

“This is the coolest interview ever!” says the young Franklin in her t-shirt, shorts and Ugg boots. “I get to sit on the diving board!”

Then enters 25-year-old Joyce, already a decorated NCAA Champion, and four-time Olympic silver medalist. Joyce, entering the twilight of her career is not ready to turn in the towel. She’s hungry, been around the swim-block, and looking for something new, something refreshing, something that can ignite her body and spirit to a herculean third Olympic games.

What does she chose? Colorado Stars, with head coach Todd Schmitz and teenage up-and-comer, Missy Franklin. Joyce loves the youth and innocence and hunger of the teenage swimmers she’s training with, and Franklin is so grateful to have a training partner that is an Olympian and who pushes her to work harder at every practice.

Schmitz just does what Schmitz does…trains his swimmers, all of them, from ages 7 to 18 and now post-graduate with an absolute passion and dedication to helping them become better swimmers, but more importantly to help them learn “life lessons.”

Colorado is not known for being a “swim” state with its harsh winters and lack of pools. So Schmitz, did what any passionate coach would, he secured whatever pool time he could for his dedicated swimmers, even if that meant practice outdoors from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Shots of those early morning practice sessions might be the most potent clips the world gets of what it’s like to be an elite swimmer, getting up in cold temperatures, well before the farmers are up, to jump into a freezing cold pool and push your body as hard as it can go. Let’s just say, if the world has never seen Franklin unhappy, they will in these shots!

These particular segments of the movie took center stage during a premiere Q&A moderated by Olympic gold medalist and NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines.

“What did you two (Barbieto and Brock) think about getting up at 4:30 a.m. to film this?” Gaines said.

“We thought they were all crazy!” Cristo said. “Actually, we still do!” he said with a laugh.

From there, Franklin’s young career continues on a world-class athletic trajectory that can’t be stopped. Meanwhile, her training partner and sister she never had, Joyce, is a professional swimmer looking to survive on her USA Swimming stipend of $30,000 a year. This allows her to continue training and lead a modest life, but is threatened by her sub-par swims at that point in her training.

There’s an incredible friendship and tension that the non-swimming filmmakers were able to capture between the two swimmers—the birth of an Olympic career and the near-end of an Olympic career—racing and training side-by-side.

Franklin, inside the warmth and cocoon of her parents love and Joyce, downsizing her apartment to move in with her boyfriend (now husband,) in a state that was not their own. When the two were introduced, her boyfriend asked her what she did for a living and she said “I swim.” He laughed and then asked again, “No, what do you really do?”

“I really swim,” said Joyce.

“Okay,” he said accepting an answer he would only begin to understand. “Do you want to have a beer?”

What happens next? Even though I knew the end of the story, I was on pins and needles waiting for it! Because there are more revelations than any of us know.

These two directors took a risk an enormous risk just as Joyce and Franklin have done, Schmitz and anyone chasing a dream. But they struck gold, real gold when they hit upon this story, well before Franklin was the Olympic Champion, World and American Record Holder, and most versatile swimmer in the world that she is now.

“I knew Dick (Richard Franklin, Missy’s Dad) from both of us being on the board of Earth Protect,” Barbeito said. “We began talking and I learned about his daughter and thought it would make an incredible film…”

“Wait a second….” Interrupted his partner, Cristo. “That’s not what you told me. You came back from a trip in Denver and said, ‘I met this guy whose daughter is 14 years old and a really good swimmer and I think we should make a movie out of it.’”

“Are you kidding me?” said Cristo.

These two non-swimming, incredibly talented filmmakers took a chance with thousands of hours worth of film, and they did it because they rightly believed that they had found a story that could impact the world.

And it has and it will.—

Franklin went on to not only make the 2012 USA Olympic Team, but the bring home four gold medals and a bronze. Joyce also made the 2012 Olympic team, then went on to get married to her sweetheart featured in the film, Casey Williamson. The now Kara Lynn Williamson is now working with Fitter and Faster Swim Tour, giving private lessons and staying “connected to swimming, inspiring and teaching as much as I can.”

They’ve partnered with USA Swimming so that all swim clubs can hold a screening of the film to inspire and educate their swimmers and parents. I encourage every club, every sporting club, school, to secure this film for your athletes and students. More than that, I call on a higher film-ground, the Academy! This film is so worthy!

It’s so much more than a swim movie or a sports movie or an expose, it’s a story about life and struggle, growing up, parenting, coaching, the pain of coming short of one’s goals and the unbridled joy of reaching them. and every beautiful, tragic moment in-between.

Touch the Wall is a must-see film. Filled with desire, pain, endurance, faith, family, and the crushing blow of disappointment when you gave it all along with the ecstasy of success when you are the one that touched the wall first!

To view the film or secure it for a screening go to www.touchthewall.com

Erin Quinn is the head coach of the Hawks Swimming Association in New York.  She’s also a contributing writer at Swimming World.

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. avatar
    john m. razi

    Awesome review !

  2. avatar

    Great your review. When i view your article and view your site have good.

Author: Jason Marsteller

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Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

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