Missy Franklin, Still Team USA’s Miss Sunshine

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

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Editorial Coverage Sponsored By FINIS

By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer

It was the summer of 2010 when I first met the wonder kid from Colorado– Missy Franklin. I was 22, Franklin was 15. I had finished my college career, Franklin had just started high school. We had both qualified for the 2010 Pan Pacific Championship team.

During training camp, I was awkwardly lumped into a group with two 16-year-olds (Elizabeth Pelton and Rachel Bootsma) and Franklin under the watch of a young, charismatic Colorado Stars coach, Todd Schmitz. On day one of training camp we did a round containing 5×100 free in which we were to keep our heart rate around 160 beats per minute. The teens were all holding 1:00s…long course. I was left in their wake, but I didn’t care. This pack of tenacious cubs (who all, ironically, ended up becoming Cal Bears), endearingly started calling me “Mama Bear”. I loved swimming with my pack of baby bears. They lightened the stress of my first international meet. Especially that Missy Franklin.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H.Bick

Photo Courtesy: Peter H.Bick

Every time Missy hit the water, she would go a best time. I’d see her after her races and tell her how amazed I was and she would flash her signature full-faced Missy smile and humbly laugh, “Thanks, Mama Bear”. The highest Missy finished at Pan-Pacs was fourth in the 100 backstroke, but everyone knew Colorado’s ray of sunshine was about to explode.

At the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Franklin collected five medals– three gold, one silver, one bronze. Franklin led off the 4×200 free relay in a time that would have won the 200 free world title, a 1:55.06. Franklin went on to win gold and set her first American record in the 200 back (2:05.10). Franklin did a quick warm down then stepped up to swim in the 4×100 medley relay. She anchored with a 52.97, the fastest split in the field.

Missy Franklin became Missy the Missile. The 16-year-old had reached maximum velocity on the world stage and could do no wrong. She swept the bulk of the 2011 Golden Goggle Awards (Female Athlete of the Year, Female Race of the Year, and Relay Performance of the Year).

In the fall of 2011, Franklin set her first world record in the 200 back (short course meters). It was the first “suits” era world record to be broken in a textile suit.

Most of us recall how the 2012 Olympic Games went for Missy– America’s golden girl with Beiber fever. Four gold medals and one bronze. Two world records, three American records. An impeccable first Olympic showing for Missy.

Fast forward four years to the Rio Olympic Games. Franklin failed to make the final heat in both the 200 free and 200 back. She swam as a part of the preliminary 4×200 relay squad which secured a lane for the finals squad to win gold. Missy Franklin has not walked out for one final at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games nor has she stood on the podium for a relay.

Does she feel like a failure? I’m sure she does. In an interview after her final swim- a disappointing 200 back semifinal – Franklin said through tears, “Unfortunately the time is no where near what I know I’m capable of doing. For some reason, it’s just not there right now.

Missy Franklin is human. And I relate to her now more than ever. The beautiful thing about Franklin’s fall from the Olympic throne is what has always been her strength– that Missy sunshine. Though there are surely thunderheads in Franklin’s mind, she refuses to let her spirit be clouded.

“I just wanted her to know now how much the team loves her,” Team USA’s breakout star Maya DiRado said after the 200 back semifinal. “It doesn’t matter that she didn’t make the final because she’s an amazing teammate. I can give her no higher compliment than, you would never know how she’s swimming based on how she’s interacting with the team. That’s the sign of a true champion and a true leader.”

When asked about DiRado, Franklin responds with equal veneration: Maya has been such a leader on this team…we’re all going to miss her so much [DiRado will retire after the Games]. For her to support me the way she has, it’s been incredible. I can’t wait to watch her tomorrow night. She can’t have enough success come her way.”

Franklin became a professional athlete last spring, and although she would never use that as an excuse, the life of a sought-after athlete spreading themselves thin can take a toll. Missy Franklin is a “yes woman” and is representing a lot of products and companies now. I’m sure she’s not swimming solely to please them, but there is a performance obligation unwritten in those deals.

missy-franklin-speedo

Photo Courtesy: Speedo

We cannot write about redemption yet, but I am confident the day will come. Missy Franklin is 21 years old– far from an old lady in the sport of swimming. She is having the first major slump of her career and growing in character more than she realizes because of it.

It’s not testing to be on fire at the Olympics and have all of the confidence in the world that you’re going to go fast. Franklin swam knowing she was “cold” at this Games; knowing for some reason “it’s just not there right now.” Any athlete knows that feeling. It’s boundlessly frustrating. You mentally regroup. You physically recupe. You rewrite your race strategy. But nay, it’s still seconds off your best. Franklin executed her final race of the Rio Olympics well in her mind, but it was five seconds off of her world record in the event.

“I wish I had an excuse, but I don’t and I’m not going to make up one,” Franklin frankly stated. “The truth is I worked as hard as I possibly could, I did everything I could think of doing, and for some reason I fell more short than I ever have before. I wish there was an explanation for that, but I’m just trusting that God has a plan and a purpose and he’s going to make something beautiful out of this…even though I really wish I could ask him what that’s going to be right now!” Missy laughed and sniffled as she wore her heart on her sleeve. 

Though her individual performances in Rio will earn her no medals, the caliber of person Missy Franklin is glistens through her words. I want my future daughter to know Missy. I want her to keep fighting when things are not falling into place. I want her to carry herself with joy and grace in the face of disappointment.

“That’s what’s being an American is all about. We run toward the fight, we don’t run away from it,” Franklin said about her Rio mentality. “Getting up for that 2 back tonight, I felt a little like David facing Goliath, and I felt like I didn’t have any stones in my pocket. So to still get up and fight, I’m really proud.”

I’ve been awed by your aquatic achievements over and over, Missy. But now I observe your maturity, humility and kindness in wonder. Even as you cry, you force a smile. Your teammates might understand if you withdrew into a shell this week, but that’s not you. You love your team and want your behavior to positively affect their performance. You’re a prime example of how sport can refine an individual into a more precious metal. You may feel the pain of being in the fire now, but you will emerge (and already are) with a new shine to that pre-existing Missy sparkle.

16 Comments

16 comments

  1. avatar

    This girl is a darling. So sweet… Hope she returns in super shape

  2. avatar
    Anne Pelton

    Well said Annie! I couldn’t agree more. Missy is a champion in and out of the pool!

  3. avatar
    Deborah Kolb

    Marvelous, insightful article. Well done, Annie. Wishing Missy all the best!

  4. avatar
    Susan Fitch

    I’ve been thinking about MF a lot over the last few days. Wondering how she felt not making the final; and after being bumped off the 4x 200 relay. She’s having such a difficult time. I’m so glad to hear that she’s keeping her head up. Thanks for writing this article.

  5. avatar
    Haga

    That rushing sound you hear is her sponsors heading for the hills. However I don’t blame Missy. Sponsor wave their millions and when young athletes accept them, their lives are no longer their own.

  6. avatar
    Joy Division

    Very, very disgraceful from the coaches not to let her swim the 4×200 final. They should be ashamed. If not, then I’m ashamed for them.

    I was actually expecting Ledecky to put her foot down and *demand* from Marsh and Bowman that Missy should swim the final with her. Maybe she did but they still didn’t let her.

    Even if Missy would have been 1.57.5 they’d still have had gold, and if Missy would have been 1.58 we’d have seen a 1.52 from Ledecky.

    • avatar
      Deborah Kolb

      As the mother of a former competitive swimmer, I understand the coaches’ decision. It is their job to construct the best team on the given day. Having said that, I understand that it must have been a blow to Missy, but coaches must go with the hot hand. I am guessing Missy realizes that. Note that Michael Phelps did not qualify in the relay events, but was added to the finals teams for the same reasons that Maya Dirado was added. I hope that Missy regroups and rebounds soon. She deserves every happiness.

    • avatar
      Greg Tucker

      That’s not how swimming works. Everybody knows the rules on relays. Bush led the assessment, not Marsh. I’m sure Mssy was disappointed but not surprised.

    • avatar
      Lynn

      I was surprised & very upset about the decision by the coach(es) to take Missy out of 800 free relay. Missy earned the spot on the relay final, at the trial (2nd after Katie) & at the preliminary(2nd fastest after Alison), what’s the basis that Missy will not swim faster than Leah or Maya (who did not even
      compete in 200 free)? We all know swimmers WILL swim faster in relays, who can say that Missy would not have swan 1:55/low 1:56 during the relay final? She is fully capable of!!!! Coaches should have shown that kind of trust in her! The risk of having Missy in the relay final & somehow lose 1st place is low & the potential upside of having her in the final was high: with Missy in the final, they could have broke the record! Missy might have very different mental power for her 200 back!
      In any case, thanks Annie for your beautiful writing! Missy is an incredibly talented swimmer. She will come back stronger! With amazing natural ability/physical attributes(e.g big feets 🙂 )for swimming, I hope that we will see her swim IMs at next Olympics.

    • avatar
      cwhitney

      Well said……

  7. avatar
    Ger

    It’s not just her form in Rio. This is a malaise going back a couple of years since her back issues. I sincerely hope she can get her mojo back. She’s great for the sport. i do though wonder, if she ever will.
    The decision to leave her off the relay was without question the correct one. You don’t make these decisions based on sentiment.

  8. avatar
    Linda Chandler

    Very nice article, Annie! You make your Aunts and Uncles, especially those in Dallas, proud!❤️?

  9. avatar
    Jill Welch and Family

    Wonderful article, Annie! Missy Franklin has such a sweet spirit; you captured her essence beautifully. Let that little light continue to shine, Missy! You, too, Annie!

  10. avatar
    Brian

    Here in Orlando, roughly 3 years ago, after 8-10 hours at the pool, Missy stood in a crowd of admiring swimmers and parents smiling, signing stuff and posing with the kids. She’d been doing that for about an hour when we left. Several other swimmers went out back and side doors and avoided the kids.
    The kids loved her. Every one of them walked away feeling like THEY meant something to HER. My daughter still talks about that day.

  11. avatar
    Addiesmom

    You’ve been my daughter’s hero for several years now Missy and I’ll encourage that now more than ever! We’ll look forward to watching you kick some butt in Tokyo. Your grace, resiliency and kindness are qualities all kids should strive for.

  12. avatar
    Robin Walker

    Annie, thank you for writing the insider’s perspective of Missy’s disappointing meet. I love your style, and the positive spin you are able to bring to the subject matter you choose.
    I couldn’t agree with you more about Missy Franklin, she is still America’s darling ray of sunshine. Perhaps her place on the team was to bring that ray of light, or maybe show other competitors and her fans that courage can be about more than going out and getting medals and records. Either way I’m proud of the way Team USA represented our country whether it was in victory, love of the sport, or pure and courageous effort.

Author: Annie Grevers

avatar
Annie (Chandler) Grevers is a staff writer for Swimming World. She swam for the University of Arizona, winning the 100 yard breaststroke at the NCAA DI Championships as a senior in 2010. She was also a member of six NCAA Championship relays during her college career as well as a member of Arizona’s NCAA Championship title in 2008. She represented the United States at the Pan Pacific Games in 2010 and at the Pan American Games in 2011, where she won the 100 breaststroke. She is married to Matt Grevers and resides in Tucson, Arizona.

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