Passing the torch. Rise and fall. Student bests teacher. All of these are oft repeated themes in films, especially in sports films from He Got Game to Hoop Dreams to Bull Durham. Sometimes these themes bring out the best in people, other times they bring out the worst. In a cutthroat world like sports, where ego, money and self-promotion usually trump all, it’s rare to see a film of any kind run counter to these notions. But in Grant Barbeito & Christo Brock‘s documentary Touch the Wall, we see the best of the relationship between two athletes, Olympic swimmers Kara Lynn Joyce and Missy Franklin, who are at opposite ends of their career spectrum – one a champion trying to hold on and the other a phenom up and comer trying to make her mark. What unfolds over the multiple year filming is heartfelt, emotional and really a triumphant journey of these two women who, in and out of the pool, exemplify how best to deal with adversity, fame, victory and defeat.
Clearly the two directors of this film were clued in on how good of a swimmer Missy Franklin really was when she was a young teen in Colorado. The serendipity of starting to film a documentary about this young lady as she is starting to ascend to the highest heights of the swimming ranks seems improbable (for more on this, check out the interview portion below).
When we first see Missy, she is a gregarious and dedicated 14-year old working with her coach Todd Schmitz preparing for the world and what lies ahead. It’s clear she’s a very special talent. And we really have a front row seat watching it all unfold. Missy is humble and has as great an attitude about her talent and what her future holds as any athlete I’ve ever seen profiled, rare amongst the elite in any sport. She is grounded by having great, devoted parents in Richard and DA. Missy is their only child and they shower her with love and support at all turns and a coach who believes in her and brings out the best she can be. She is firing on all cylinders with exception of having someone at her disposal that has been where she’s been and has gone through the same trials and tribulations as she. Enter Kara Lynn Joyce.
Kara Lynn Joyce, an all-American at University of Georgia where she won 18 (EIGHTEEN!!!) NCAA titles and a 4-time Olympic silver medalist, comes to Denver to train with Missy and Todd in order to get into shape and hopefully make one last Olympic team. Having represented the US in the 2004 Olympics in Athens as well as the 2008 Games in Beijing, Kara brings the experience that Missy can lean on and question as she makes her run. In the process, Kara becomes a stabilizing influence on Missy and she, in turn, gets an injection of youthful exuberance from training with Missy and the rest of the Colorado Stars team. But while Missy continues to flourish as the Olympic trial dates near, Kara questions her ability and the coaching and seeks change. What unfolds is pure sports dramatics and everything that we love about competition at the highest levels.
I must say that when I first started watching this film, I was expecting a lovely portrait of an incredibly gifted and talented teenage girl who could swim incredibly fast. That she is like the Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt of the swimming world (meaning insanely charming and likeable) certainly didn’t hurt. And it was that, but so much more and in the best possible way. If you know swimming or watched the 2012 Olympics, you likely know how Missy‘s story turned out. If not, all the more reason to see this film. And while Missy‘s story is incredibly interesting, especially to someone who has never been a phenom at anything, it was really Kara‘s story that resonated most with me. I knew Missy‘s arc (although not the behind the scenes part of it), but Kara‘s was unknown, surprising and particularly thrilling. Perhaps it’s my age as I reflect back on things that I didn’t take to completion wishing I could have a do-over, but her seeing her perseverance and drive really hit a note with me. She never gave up, stayed true to herself, knew her limits and went for it at all costs. That equal weight was given to both swimmers’ stories was incredibly key to this film. Without it, the film would have been less engaging and less successful. Kara‘s role as counterpoint was crucial to the success of this film.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Touch the Wall that are incredibly applicable in a multitude of ways that venture way beyond swimming or sports. This is a heartwarming film of triumph on a number of levels, and thematically it has the goods. I really do think it will find a big audience if given the chance and I hope many people will line up to see it. There are a couple of moments that really grabbed me emotionally and surprised me and I credit Barbeito and Brock‘s passion for this project for capturing them.
USA Swimming is doing a great job rolling this film out to their members, but it will hit theaters on November 28. If you get the chance to see it, don’t pass this one up.
I was incredibly lucky to chat with Kara Lynn Joyce and directors Grant Barbeito and Christo Brock about Touch the Wall. Here’s how it went down:
How did you decide to follow Missy and make this film?
GB – Dick Franklin was at a meeting that I was at for Earth Protect. I was showing a rough cut of a short film I had just finished. Afterwards, Dick said to me, maybe you should make a film about my daughter. Missy had just turned 14. That was enough to get me out to Colorado and interview the family. We had no intention of making the film, but she is such a great personality and easy way of being and it gave us a lot of interest.
CB – Grant came back to me with the idea and said we should make the film. Grant did a quick shoot and showed me the footage. It was enough to get us going…
We want to let it be known that we are not swimmers either.
Kara, I loved the film and both stories were captivating, but your story was the one that really interested me more. Knowing Missy’s meteoric rise during the 2012 Olympics, I knew what to expect from her arc. Yours was a little more poignant to me at least where I’m now in my own life. Your drive and perseverance are enviable. How close, if at all, were you to quitting? What kept you going?
KLJ – I had thought about retiring earlier. It was a tumultuous four years between 2008 and the 2012 games, changing different teams, locations and coaches. It got to the point where after the Florida Keys trip [featured in the movie] that Todd wasn’t going to get me to the Olympics, so I needed a change. I pondered a lot and I wasn’t ready to hang it up. I owed it to myself, my friends, my family and all of the people who stood by me along the way.
Was it like godsend when Kara decided to join Missy in Colorado? Was there a moment that you both just said, “we’ve hit the lottery”?
(it gets a little murky here as to which of the directors was talking, so I will notate where I am sure who said what)
With Kara being more worldly and more articulate, she gave us more of the pathos of the story. Kara’s struggles were real and gave us access to emotions that we didn’t have with just Missy.
CB – We didn’t really have a film until Kara came out to swim with Missy. Now there was a contrast between the older and younger swimmers – we could say more about life.
Kara, Were there any moments that you wish hadn’t been in the film? Likewise, any that didn’t make the cut that you do wish were in the film?
I don’t think there was anything in the film that I didn’t want. It is an honest portrayal of what occurred. [Grant and Christo] did a great job of balancing the story between me and Missy. They did an amazing job. I’m so happy with it and happy that I’ll get to show it to my kids some day.
I can’t imagine how hard it was to whittle down 400 hours of footage into this film.
You seemed to have full access to Missy and her family during the filming – prom, high school pep rallies, state championships, and all of the lead-in to the Olympics. Did it take some convincing on Missy’s parents’ part? Or were they gung ho from the outset.
I wouldn’t say they were gung ho all the time. With so many other interview requests coming in all the time, they had to balance who had access to them and Missy. We had to see when we could come in and wait for the right opportunity when Missy wasn’t too stressed or had other things going on. You don’t want interfere with the story, but don’t want to miss anything. We didn’t find this out until later, but [the Franklins] had family meetings about whether to or not to allow us to make this film.
Kara, The rift between you and Todd Schmitz was palpable by the Indianapolis Grand Prix, especially given the conversation you had with him at the training session in Florida. In the pool after your race in Indy, you spoke very candidly about how the results might have been different had you able to skip a practice here or there. Did you feel that you could tell the filmmakers things that you couldn’t tell him?
Yeah (laughs). I became good friends with the filmmakers during the shooting and I felt like I could tell them things. I never kept anything from Todd. Todd knew that I never kept anything hidden from him.
My favorite moment of the film is when Kara makes the Olympic team. The look of surprise and happiness on your face, the perfect confluence, was the reaction that I would expect a moment like that to look like. Did it feel as good as it looked (here’s the video)?
KLJ – Yeah. Undoubtedly. It was probably my favorite swim moment. It was everything I was capable of doing at the time.
Before we go out to swim, all eight competitors sit in a room together for, like, 10-15 minutes. There was lots of thinking and going over the last four years in that time. I knew I was making this the last swim of my career, and I was going to put everything into it. It was such a blessing to look up a see a #2 next to my name. I was not expecting it.
GB – Watching [Kara] qualify for the team was the most unbelievable moment to us. We had become friends. So seeing her and Missy make the Olympic team was like seeing our friends succeed. It was a great moment.
CB -We were blubbering when Kara made it. Missy looked at us,crying, and that was it. Movies bring us to places we don’t go otherwise.
Once again, a big thanks to Kara Lynn Joyce, Grant Barbeito and Christo Brock for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk Touch the Wall with me.