Missy Franklin is so upbeat, so full of energy, so dang positive all the time, it’s hard to imagine her ever going to a dark place.
After what happened last summer, though, it’s only natural that she would start to question everything she stood for.
“Being totally honest with you, it’s something that terrifies me,” Franklin said, her perpetually positive tone suddenly filled with doubt and insecurity. “What if I’m never as good as I was?”
That’s a logical, if excruciating question.
At 17, she was the darling of the Olympics, a bubbly teenager who swam in seven events at London and captured four golds and a bronze. Four years later, she barely qualified for the U.S. team, ceded a starring role to Katie Ledecky and didn’t come close to winning an individual medal in Rio de Janeiro, her only prize a rather fluky gold for swimming on a relay team in a morning preliminary.
“It was awful. It was miserable,” said Franklin, who sounds as though she could probably come up with dozens of other adjectives to describe what a letdown it was. “You work your ass off. You feel like you’re in the best shape of your life. You feel so great. And then, when you finish, you’re like, ‘What was that?’ You’re flabbergasted. You’re blown away every single race. You can’t understand why one plus one doesn’t equal two anymore.”
Turns out, she was far from 100 percent. It would be easy to make excuses now, to point out that she’s needed surgery on both shoulders after Rio.
But Franklin knows that wasn’t the issue. Only thing is, she may never know why she was such a huge flop on her sport’s biggest stage.
“One of my biggest concerns with coming out (to the public) about my shoulder surgeries was everybody saying, ‘Oh, that’s what was wrong.’ It wasn’t,” Franklin said, honest as always. “I can say that with 100 percent certainty. The way I was training the whole year, it was the best training I’ve ever done in my life.
“For some reason,” she goes on to say, as if still probing for answers, “it wasn’t going over to my racing strategy, wasn’t going over to my races. I can’t pinpoint it. I can’t figure out why. Maybe it was just a culmination of a lot of different things.”
At this point, Franklin’s main goal is to quit wondering why it happened, and just accept that it did. Getting distance from the sport is helping her move in that direction.
Undergoing a pair of shoulder surgeries just weeks apart early in the year forced her to step away from the pool. It also gave her a chance to re-evaluate her life, her priorities, her struggle to comprehend what happened last summer.
Franklin is missing the two biggest meets of the year — the U.S. championships in Indianapolis, which began on Tuesday, and next month’s world championships in Budapest, Hungary.
It seems incredibly strange, but somehow liberating at the same time.
“This is the first summer since I was 14 that I haven’t traveled internationally with the national team,” said Franklin, who is now 22. “It’s so crazy. That was such a constant in my life. I was so comfortable with my routine. But I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. This is a period of my life where I’m challenged to be uncomfortable, to break my routine. When I do come back, it will be with a different outlook, a different perspective.”
Make no mistake, she has no intention to retire.
Franklin can’t bear the thought of the last impression that she leaves for everyone being that miserable performance in Rio.
“The closest I ever got” to thinking about quitting, she said, “was me recognizing that I needed to take a chunk of time away. A huge part of me can’t imagine leaving the sport on that note. It wasn’t about times. I’m not saying I’ll leave swimming only after I’ve gotten another four gold medals at my last Olympics. But I want it to be a performance I’m really proud of.”
That wasn’t the case in Rio, even though Franklin knows she gave it everything she had. In retrospect, she wasn’t as happy as she led everyone — herself included — to believe.
Following a carefully planned and what seemed a totally logical schedule after London, she swam collegiately at California-Berkeley for two years before turning professional a year out from the Rio Games. It made sense, giving her a chance to focus completely on her swimming and cash in on all the riches she missed by staying an amateur in the immediate aftermath of 2012.
But, as part of turning pro, she returned home to Colorado to train with her former team and her former coach. In retrospect, that was probably not the right move — only because she had changed so much in those two years she was away.
Missy grew up. Her friends had moved away. She was home but felt all alone.
“I had no friends there,” Franklin said, in a rare moment of sounding sad. “There was nothing to do but just train and swim. That became my whole life. I had to get to a place where I could find balance again.”
She feels like she’s found that place again. She returned to Berkeley not long after the Rio Games, a liberating development that allowed her to resume classes — she’s about a year and a half from graduating — and reconnect with friends. She’s resumed training a couple of times a week, but is in no hurry to return to the grind required of a world-class swimmer.
The other night, after leading a campus meeting of Athletes in Action, a Christian-based group that allows her to mix her sporting passion with her deeply held faith, one of her best friends asked if she wanted to come back to her apartment to watch the movie “Moana.”
“Normally, I would’ve said, ‘No, I have to be in bed, because I have to get up early,'” Franklin said, bursting into laughter. “Then I thought to myself: ‘Wow, I can stay up until 11. I can go over and watch ‘Moana.’ It’s small stuff like that, but it makes the biggest difference to me.”
She hopes it will lead her back to the top of her sport.
Maybe it won’t.
With each passing day, she becomes a little more comfortable with that prospect.
“I’m not necessarily trying to be a better Missy,” Franklin said. “But I’m trying to be a happier Missy.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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