Missy Franklin Driving Conversations About World’s Physical, Mental Struggles of 2020

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

2020 has been an extremely difficult year for people around the world. Between COVID-19 and its byproducts, it has put a physical, mental and emotional strain on the entire globe.  Missy Franklin is trying to lead the turnaround on all fronts, by encouraging people to safely return to the water and to be able to talk about the mental and emotional strains.

On the physical side, the five-time Olympic gold medalist is an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation, which has started the Saving Lives is Always in Season initiative, with the goal of getting kids back in the water safely, especially for swimming lessons.

According to USA Swimming, lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent. Among parents who never learned to swim, the rate of their children learning to swim is just 19 percent.

Those numbers resonated with Franklin on several levels.

“My story just lends itself to that,” Missy Franklin told Swimming World. “My mom didn’t learn how to swim until her 30s. She developed a huge fear of the water and still has it today. She will not go in the ocean or in the pool where her feet can’t touch the bottom.

“What hit me was how generational that was and how much it could get passed on. There is only a 19% chance that a kid could learn how to swim when the parent doesn’t know how, which is flooring. So I see that stat and see myself. I can’t even begin to fathom how different my life would be if she didn’t face it and not want to pass her fear on to me. Being able to learn to swim is a right that every young child should have. I feel incredibly called to that.”

In non-COVID years, the USA Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 does its Make a Splash Tour to help promote swimming and give lessons around the country. With pools closed for so long, the approach was different this year.

“I am so proud of the foundation for being able to pivot in a time like this,” Franklin said. “Normally we do our Make a Splash tour with Phillips 66. For the foundation to put the time and effort into what we can still do is really important. The campaign breaks down a lot of stereotypes. A lot of people think the only time for swim lessons is in the summer. This is the perfect time to dismantle those stereotypes. Then kids can be constantly exposed to the water. My biggest fear is that come next summer, everyone is going to be wanting to make up for lost time and go to pools and water parks and we will have kids that may not have been in the pool for at least a year. That is why it is so important that we are doing this. It should happen all year round.”

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Missy Franklin. Photo Courtesy: Instagram, @missyfranklin88

“If parents are worried about COVID and the safety of their kids, I just want to encourage them to see the amazing safety precautions being taken at pools. There are so many things in place to keep everyone safe. Just give your pool a call.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away a physical opportunities for people in a variety of ways, that in turn, has created a lot of mental and emotional strain.

Franklin has been an outspoken voice advocating for more mental health awareness after some of her own struggles following the 2016 Olympics.

With more strain on mental health, more conversations need to happen, she said.

“It is more important than ever to have this conversation,” Franklin said. “This year has been so unprecedented. There’s so much anxiety, animosity and tension. People are dealing with things they never thought they would have to deal with. Being open and authentic is one of the most incredible gifts we can give to each other at this time. We have had really incredible spokespeople like Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, who have stepped up and shared their stories and been vulnerable. Being an athlete doesn’t make you immune to the issues of being a human being.”

Franklin said that was one of the biggest struggles for her, was the perception that as a successful athlete on the world stage, she was somehow different.

“People tend to see professional athletes as something other than human, a super-human quality,” she said. “It is so important to be able to show we are like everyone else. We all face struggle and pressure and expectations and failure. How do we combine our different experiences to help others? It has become a conversation but we need to talk about it more and keep sharing our stories. The fight is going until mental health is no longer a taboo subject. People should not be ashamed to need to talk to someone. No one would feel ashamed to talk to a doctor when having the flu. It is the same thing in my book. It is your well-being. We are on a really good path on opening up that discussion and need to keep going and get rid of that stigma.”

Franklin, who retired after Rio because of a shoulder injury, uses the water to help her physical and mental health. She said she would have needed another bilateral shoulder surgery to continue her career, which was something she didn’t want to endure.

“There was no way I would be at my best after that. They said there was only a 50 percent chance that it would help with my pain anyway. I get in the water and get in for 20-30 minutes and take it nice and easy,” Missy Franklin said. “In a way it is liberating (now). Walking around day to day I am fine. It is not a pain that affects my quality of life. But I did retire because it hurt so much to swim. It still really hurts to swim. The difference now is that I can just get out and swimming is still very therapeutic for me.”

Which is why she pushes so hard to give everyone the chance to get in the water.