By David Rieder.
Winning four Olympic gold medals and one silver at her first Olympic Games was far from easy, Missy Franklin insists, because preparing to reach the sport’s highest level requires such intense dedication and focus.
But back then, everything in Franklin’s life was smooth, straightforward, uncomplicated. She had to balance swimming and high school, so she did just that. She swam fast, and it was exciting.
The next three years showed signs of that dream life fading—back spasms derailed Franklin at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, and she failed to defend any of her individual World titles at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan. Still, even in August of 2015—heck, even in June of 2016—few would have imagined how far Franklin would fall by the time she got to Rio.
In the lead-up to her second Olympic Games, Franklin experienced what she calls “the most stressful year of her life,” and in Rio, all that pressure came crashing down.
She had only qualified to swam two individual events, the 200 free and 200 back, and she failed to make the final in either. She was bumped from the finals squad for the U.S. women’s 800 free relay.
When she looks back on that week one year later, Franklin calls the whole performance “heartbreaking.” So what gnaws at her the most? For someone who is still only 22 years old, her answer was a little startling.
“Nothing, she said, before pausing. “Really. I don’t wish I had done anything different because at the time, I literally did everything that I possibly could. That’s all you can ask of yourself in a difficult situation, that you give your best and you use what you have.”
In her final race in Brazil, the 200 back semi-finals, Franklin finished in 2:09.74, almost six seconds off her world record. Her time from Olympic Trials five weeks earlier (2:07.89) would have easily put her into the final, but on that day, she could do no better than 14th.
Franklin fought back tears as she walked through the media mixed zone, scouring her mind for answers as to what went wrong. She dug to find traces of her signature smile and laughter, however deep they may have been buried under layers of pain. It’s that effort of which Franklin is most proud.
“So much of me wanted to get out of the pool every single race and just start bawling and sobbing. My heart was being shattered with every stroke that I was taking,” she said.
“We always talk about the people we want to be when things don’t go our way and when things don’t go according to plan, and that doesn’t always happen. Things for sure did not go my way, and I acted the way I always said that I hoped I would in a situation like that. I think that’s what makes me so proud.”
On that same day when she endured the most disappointing performance of her career, Franklin received the one tangible monument of success she would take away from Rio: a gold medal. It was her fifth of that variety, earned for her participation in the prelims of the 800 free relay that went on to win gold in the final.
Because she had only swum in the prelims, Franklin received her medal in a private U.S. team meeting, instead of on the podium with the national anthem playing—the way she had received each of her four golds in London. That didn’t make the medal any less special, only different.
“That gold medal was ridiculously emotional for me. It’s hard to compare medals because they all mean so much and so many different things, and they bring up different memories with different people, but that one is easily the one that gets me the most emotional,” she said. “Sometimes it’s great emotion, sometimes it’s not great emotion—just the most emotional one.”
Absent from the pool for the final two days of Olympic swimming, Franklin embraced her unfamiliar role as team cheerleader as the Americans capped off a historic 33-medal week. When that was over, Franklin was tasked with picking up the pieces.
Back to Berkeley, Across the Pool
Immediately after the Olympics, Franklin pledged to return to Cal-Berkeley, where she had been halfway to completing her undergraduate degree before her year off dedicated to training for the Olympics. But instead of going back to swim with the women’s team and Coach Teri McKeever, Franklin turned to men’s head coach Dave Durden.
For years, Franklin had observed from afar how the Golden Bear men respected Durden and his associate head coach, Yuri Suguiyama. After Rio, she realized that Durden would be best equipped to support her as she tried to come back from her disappointing Olympics, even if that meant a first year that would “look a little different.”
“He’s so calm on deck. You can tell he’s so intentional with everything he does. He really thinks things through,” Franklin said. “I knew that he’d be someone who would be willing to support me and help me through everything, and he has.”
Franklin had already begun swimming with Durden when she returned to full-time school in the spring of 2017. She admitted that it took a few months to adjust to the routine of classes again, but she became more and more engaged as she tackled upper-level psychology classes for the first time.
But just as she was starting to adjust, Franklin’s body failed her yet again. It was not the back that had felled her at Pan Pacs almost three years earlier but her shoulders. Dealing with bursitis, Franklin underwent separate surgeries on both shoulders in early 2017 to clean up scar tissue.
Building back up after that was a deliberate process.
“We definitely wanted to take it slower with getting back in and just adding in a couple hundred every week, slowly building it up. And I think that worked really well. I did get back to a point where I was doing almost full workouts,” she said. “I was pretty stoked when I did a full 50 fly for the first time. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re killing it.'”
As she started her slow return to the pool after surgery, it quickly became clear for Franklin and Durden that she wasn’t going to be ready to compete during the 2017 summer season. Physically, it would have been a stretch. Emotionally, no way.
So she decided to step back, take the full summer of 2017 to recharge—no school and no swimming.
“Dave—I cannot say enough about him—has been so unbelievably supportive throughout this entire process,” she said. “He hasn’t been pressuring me to do absolutely anything. It’s on my own time, whatever I need, he just wants me to be happy and healthy, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get me to that point.”
Franklin planned a summer filled with plenty of trips and a Mediterranean cruise with her parents scheduled for the same time as the World Championships. But not actually swimming in that meet or at the U.S. National Championships will feel downright weird.
“Not being at (Nationals) is one thing, but then I think not being at Worlds is the hardest because that’s always my favorite part—the travel with my best friends and teammates going out, having that flag on my cap—that’s the stuff that means the world to me, and that’s such a huge reason for why I do what I do,” Franklin said.
As for a return to serious swimming training, Franklin won’t give any firm dates. Perhaps the urge to get back in will hit this fall, when Durden’s college and professional teams return, but she’s not ready to commit to anything yet.
Living in the Present—For Once
But for right now, Franklin’s only concern is being present—enjoying her time with the people she is close to, appreciating the “little things” in life and simply laughing. She has little interest in thinking about the future.
“My whole life has been so future-oriented. We’re constantly looking one, two, three, four years ahead of where we actually are, and that comes with it. That’s part of being an Olympic athlete and living your life in four-year cycles,” she said.
In the months after the Olympics, Franklin explained how she was working to fall back in love with swimming, but she knew it was a process that couldn’t be rushed. With all the sacrifices required to swim at an elite level, she needed to be fully committed and fully dedicated before jumping back in.
When Franklin decides to return to swimming, she knows it can’t be because her sponsors or her fans or even those close to her want her to—any decision has to come from her heart. And even if it’s not yet, Franklin thinks the time will come when she is ready to make that commitment.
“I 100 percent want to keep doing what I do, and I love it, and I think there’s still so much more that I can show and so much more that I want to fight for and offer, and I want to do what I can to make sure that when that point comes, that I’m ready for it and I’m going to fight as hard as I have in the past,” she said.
The past year of Franklin’s life has been tough, from the stresses of the Olympic year to the massive disappointments of Rio to the injury bug hitting hard this winter. Those crushing blows took away something more central to who she was than she had ever realized.
From those crushing lows, she has emerged stronger. She has discovered who she is beyond Missy Franklin the swimmer.
“It’s easy to say that your identity isn’t based in something when that has always gone well for you,” Franklin said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, of course my identity is not based in swimming. It’s always been great.’ As soon as that thing that you’ve identified with so strongly for your entire life is taken away from you, you really do have to step back. And I think that’s one of the things I’m so grateful for.
“I don’t think I ever would have come to realize how much I base my identity on swimming if it hadn’t been for it being taken away and for me to have to go through what I went through. That’s been a huge learning curve for me and, without a doubt, the hardest learning curve I’ve ever had. But it hat has really changed me and shaped me as a person.”