Defining Success Beyond Fast Times and Medals Just Might Save Your Swimming Career (and Life)

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

By Isabelle Robuck, Swimming World College Intern.

We spend countless hours training for one meet, one race, one time, and one feeling – success. Different swimmers define success differently. For some, it looks like dropping time and taking titles. For others, the glory doesn’t come as sweet.

Some define success as swimming fast – fast enough to win, fast enough to impress, or fast enough to be proud. No one can always win. In fact, it’s quite rare to win. But if you are ever lucky enough to stand on top of the podium, you have the satisfaction of knowing there was nothing in the water you could have done better than in that very moment.


Photo Courtesy: Thomas Campbell/Texas A&M Athletics

The Highest of Highs

Performing at our best is the greatest feeling in the world. All of the blood, sweat and tears, the early mornings and late nights; everything falls into place and becomes worth it. Think back to that one race where everything clicked for you. You had easy speed and gave it your all, and the time on the record board made your teammates cheer wildly. It is those moments that keep us hungry for more.

Other times, that isn’t enough…

The Lowest of Lows

Success doesn’t come easy, and everyone has to work for it. But sometimes, putting in the effort doesn’t cut it. You train as hard as you can, yet your goals seem forever out of reach. There are times you’ll never hit and that one person you’ll never beat. No matter what you do, you’ll never be good enough to come out on top. The fear of becoming and average swimmer sets in, and the fire inside you soul begins to dull. That ever-so-prominent void is left unfilled.

Does the road end there, or do you keep going?


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

A Strong Example to Follow

In 2012, Missy Franklin became one of the most well-known swimmers of our generations, taking home two world records and four gold medals from the London Olympics. At just seventeen years old, she charged through all unimaginable barriers and built one of the greatest legacies a woman of her age has ever created…. One she’d soon learn was hard to replicate.

In 2016, Franklin hoped to carry on the same victories. Taking a year off of school to prepare for the Rio Olympics, she was hit with a major roadblock. Just two weeks before the trials in Omaha, Missy was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, among other things. The world turned a blind eye to her mental health as the panic attacks set in moments before she climbed to the blocks.

Determined to combat her struggles, Missy trained harder than ever before, fighting her way into Rio in three events, only to fall short of finals in all three.

“The hardest thing I had to do in Rio was climb into my seat in the athlete stands for the finals of the 200 back, an event I’d won in London with a world-record time. An event that was going on without me.”– Missy Franklin, Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion


Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Billions watched as Franklin climbed out of the pool with tear filled eyes. In addition to her internal battles, she felt like she had not only let herself down but also her teammates.

Franklin didn’t swim poorly by any means. But, as the world watched, even she knew she was capable of more. Shortly after her Rio experience, the media began creating a narrative regarding her disappointing performances: She wasn’t training hard enough, or she didn’t want it enough. Her body had changed since the last Olympics, and she wasn’t capable of getting back to her old times. 

There she stood as cameras flashed in her face, forcing a smile while the world put words into her mouth – regardless if they were true or not.

Facing the Inner Demons

It took up until Franklin shared her story to put her past to rest. The truth is that everyone is human, and even our biggest role models struggle in the water. Everyone has his or her own inner battles; mental illness is a real thing and needs to be addressed more. 

So, is that where the story ends? For Franklin, it certainly wasn’t. Determined, she looked for other ways to bounce back. Not allowing her inner demons to take control and wallow in self pity, she worked day and night to rebuild her legacy – this time, around perseverance, character and self-confidence.

“It’s one thing to inspire all these little girls by winning a bunch of medals. That’s easy. But it’s another thing entirely to be an inspiration when things aren’t exactly going your way.” – Missy Franklin, Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion

And so she did. Immediately after the Rio games, Franklin made an appointment to heal. On top of so many things, she worked to redefine the word success for herself. She discovered what makes her happy, and to this day, she continues to re-discover that same love for our sport that gave her so much joy six years ago.


Photo Courtesy: Kylene Abraham

Swimming success isn’t about the medals or the fast times; your pride should run deeper than any pool. Your happiness shouldn’t depend on your performance; define success for yourself. You may not be the fastest, or have the prettiest stroke or an incredible flip turn… But, you have the power to be the best version of yourself that this world has ever seen. That, in itself, is more valuable than anything a fast time in a pool can ever give you.

It’s okay to admit that you’re not okay. It’s okay to ask for help, even though it can be scary. You’re not alone. What may seem almost impossible could end up saving your career, or even your life.

Don’t be afraid to speak up. If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression or anxiety, do not be afraid to reach out for help by calling the National Hopeline Network at 1-800-442-4673 or National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Kathy Jelaca-Maxwell
5 years ago

Love MF but so tired of hearing about her problems! We all have them and if we could be so fortunate to have even made it to the Olympics, let alone take home a couple gold! Get over it girlfriend, like all of us unknowns have to do!

Former Swimmer, Current MD
Former Swimmer, Current MD
5 years ago

Wow – this sort of attitude is exactly why people with mental health issues don’t seek help. Nobody would ever be so harsh if she were suffering from Multiple Sclerosis or another neurologic disorder – just because her ailment is not apparent physically doesn’t make it any less grounded in dysfunction of the nervous system. What Allison Schmitt and Missy Franklin are doing for mental health is so wonderful – and so necessary, as you have demonstrated.

Cristene Taylor Burr
5 years ago

Wow…I really don’t think she’s looking for our sympathy. Depression and anxiety is real. The story here is one of perseverance and her willingness to own and share what’s going on is one of the many things that makes her special.

5 years ago

If you can leave your best race in the pool, then what’s on the scoreboard doesn’t matter.