The Bliss and the Agony of Missy Franklin’s Return

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

Missy Franklin walked onto the pool deck at the Woollett Aquatic Center and looked around. Eight years earlier, that pool had been the site of her first U.S. Nationals and then of her first international meet, the Pan Pacific Championships. Now, she was back for Nationals and her first competition on American soil in more than two years.

Since her devastating week of swimming at the Rio Olympics, Franklin had competed only once, at the Mare Nostrum circuit in early June. She had missed Nationals in 2017. In the meantime, she had changed coaches twice and uprooted her life at Cal-Berkeley to move to the University of Georgia and train under coach Jack Bauerle. The former teenage sensation was now 23. A lot had changed.

But not Franklin. Bubbly and excitable as ever, she delayed her first day of warmups by walking around the pool deck and reacquainting herself with old friends. Hugs were plenty.

“They’re like my family,” she said. “So being here and just seeing everyone was so special. It reminds me a lot of why I do this and how special the people are that God has brought into my life through swimming and sport.”

For Franklin’s parents, D.A. and Dick Franklin, just seeing her back at Nationals, back in a space that makes her happy, just felt right.

“She said to her mom yesterday, ‘This feels like me again,’” Dick said. “It’s reinvigorated her, both mentally and emotionally. It’s about the fun in the sport. That’s what I always drove into her all the time. Seeing her smiling like she was yesterday and actually liking to race and having fun with it, it was really good for us to see.”

But only 36 hours after the meet began, Franklin walked off the competition pool deck for the final time, fighting back tears. It had not been a magical comeback weekend, and swimming in a pair of C-finals was not exactly what she had in mind coming in.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Day one of the meet brought the 100 free, where Franklin qualified 22nd out of prelims. Swimming late that night, after the A and B-finals were done, Franklin flipped seventh at the turn but propelled herself home to win the heat in 55.33.

About that swim, Franklin was okay. After all, it was the 200-meter distance that she had targeted as her best shot at making some international team for 2019. But the next morning brought only disappointment—a 1:59.56 in prelims, a half-second slower than her best time of the year from Mare Nostrum and more than a second slower than what it took to qualify for the A-final.

Franklin sat 18th, and she settled for another C-final. At night, she went out hard, leading the field through the first 150 meters, but she could not hold on. She faded to third, in 1:59.25.

Afterwards, Franklin didn’t try to put a happy spin on the situation. She was crushed.

“I’m pretty disappointed. I definitely wanted to be better,” she said. “I’ve trained really, really hard the past seven months. I was definitely hoping it would show up a little more, and it didn’t right now.”

Franklin sniffled.

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Maybe Franklin harbored ambitions of shocking herself and the world and making the Pan Pacs team. In reality, she wasn’t close, and 2018 and 2019 will pass as did 2017: Without Franklin, the 2012 Female World Swimmer of the Year, representing the United States in international competition.

In the aftermath of her disappointment, Franklin looked forward. There was nothing else she could do.

“Jack is amazing, and he always looks at me and says, ‘We’re in it for the long-haul,’” she said. “Long-term, it’s two years. That’s what matters, and so that’s what we’re going to keep fighting for. I’m going to do my best until then.”

Even after not the meet she hoped for, Dick and D.A. Franklin are convinced that Georgia is the right place for their daughter and Jack the right coach for her at this stage of her career.

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Georgia coach Jack Bauerle (right) with Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Jack Bauerle is kind of the quintessential coach, right person at the right time for her. She’s really enjoying working under him. He’s just so thoughtful and caring with her. We’re delighted about Georgia,” Dick said.

“And he’s teaching her patience,” D.A. added. “He said, ‘This may not be where you’re going to be. We don’t expect that. Just go out and see where you are now.’”

She insisted that she would rather leave Omaha in June 2020 without a spot on a third Olympic team than not show up there at all. She insisted that she’s going to fight and make sure she’s proud of herself when all is said and done.

Before that, Franklin still has major obstacles standing in her way. She swam only freestyle at Nationals this year, for good reason: Her balky shoulders, both operated on in early 2017, have been giving her fits, and backstroke is especially painful. Her parents wouldn’t rule out the possibility of additional surgery.

The other major challenge she faces? Regaining that old passion for the sport, the effervescence that made her, well, Missy Franklin. And no, that was never just her persona.

“When I was younger coming up in the sport, a lot of people thought it was an act, but it wasn’t,” she said. “What I loved the most about swimming was my love of swimming and how much I truly enjoyed doing that. Winning was always fun but it wasn’t why I did the sport.

“So now getting back into it, I’m really trying to figure out the why and why I want to do this. That’s still a process I’m going through day to day.”

Franklin admits she wants to make another Olympic team in two years, and she will admit what anyone else can see: She is a long way from Olympic-level form. Neither she nor anyone else truly knows if she will make it to that level.

But for two days this week in Irvine, she was back. That personality, the ability to put a smile on old friends’ faces, that made an appearance. Times and swimmers might have sped up while Franklin has struggled, but still, swimming missed her. And it was fun, even if just for two days, to have her back.

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4 years ago

Missy, wishing you continued joy and happiness in all that you do. I still have faith and confidence that you will again stand on the podium. Good luck!!!

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4 years ago

Good Luck ! You are amazing and a great role model! Thank you for all you have done for swimming!?❤️?

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4 years ago

Keep your head up Missy! We are all rooting for you!!

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4 years ago

We love you Missy!!??‍♂️?

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J.P
4 years ago

So beautiful to read this story. Good Luck Missy, even from all the way from Australia, your vivacious smile and bubbly persona is infectious. Find the ingredient that makes your heart sing again. Good Luck