IRVINE, Calif. – Missy Franklin smiled and laughed on the pool deck at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships, greeting old friends and meeting young swimmers who’ve grown up watching her on television.
People didn’t know what to expect from Franklin at her first nationals in two years following two shoulder surgeries and a diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
“It’s funny – a lot of people have been coming up to me and saying that I look really happy, which I appreciate so much,” Franklin said, “but at the same time I think that’s part of the problem. You can look any way you want, you can look like the happiest person in the world and still be going through one of the hardest struggles.”
Franklin, 23, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, gamely faced reporters Thursday after missing out on a chance to swim in the next two major international events: the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Japan later this year and next year’s world championships in South Korea.
Franklin entered only two events but did not make the top 16 in either the 100- or 200-meter freestyles. She still smiled and shook hands with the swimmers on either side of her following her races at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Franklin won the “C” final in the 100 free on Wednesday night in 55.33 seconds, an encouraging sign. She then placed third in the “C” final of the 200 with a time of 1:59.25 after leading the first half of the race.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” she said, admitting that she was “choking back tears” as she talked. “I definitely wanted to do better. I am learning a lot about patience. It’s tough. I’ve trained really, really hard the past seven months and was definitely hoping it would show up a little bit more and it didn’t right now.”
A Cross-Country Move
Franklin relocated to Athens, Georgia, from northern California earlier this year for a change of scenery and the chance to work with Jack Bauerle at the University of Georgia. She is pursuing a psychology degree and trains with the college team even though she is a pro swimmer.
Franklin said Bauerle always reminds her, “You know we’re in it for the long haul and long-term it’s two years.”
The Colorado native yearns to cap her career at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Franklin was the darling of the London Games six years ago with four gold medals and a bronze, then barely made the 2016 team, winning a gold in a relay (she swam the preliminary race) as the world wondered what had happened to her physically.
Few knew what she was going through mentally.
“Winning was always fun,” Franklin said, “but it wasn’t why I did the sport, so now getting back into it and trying to figure out my ‘why,’ and really why I want to do this. That’s still a process that I’m going through day to day.
“I think there was a lot of things that took my joy away,” Franklin added. “A lot of things got to me and I think really basing a lot of my identity (on winning) without even realizing I was doing it, and then having that taken away, was really, really tough. But I think I’m in literally the best possible environment I could be in to find that joy again and to kind of figure out my whys.”
A Success Story
Franklin pointed to another performance at the meet as proof that tribulation can be converted back into triumph.
“You look at Allison Schmitt tonight,” Franklin said, “and I mean I am so inspired by that. And that was incredible what she was able to do and how quickly she was able to do it, but I think that with that I have to be really careful not to compare myself and to get really discouraged with where I am right now.”
Schmitt, whose bubbly personality is perhaps outshined only by Franklin’s, was second in the 200-meter freestyle behind Katie Ledecky, who won her 15th national title – tying Franklin.
Ledecky clocked 1:54.60 – the second-fastest time in the world this year behind her own 1:54.56 – with Schmitt at 1:55.82.
Schmitt, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, has won eight Olympic medals including four golds in three Games appearances, but also dealt with depression. She has become a vocal spokesperson on mental health.
After taking what she calls a one-year “sabbatical,” Schmitt, 28, returned to the pool to get back into shape, as well as to restore her tan. She initially swam only twice a week. Realizing how much fun she was having and how much she missed the sport, “Schmitty” got serious again and was rewarded with a trip to Tokyo for Pan Pacs – and, she hopes, a repeat trip in two years.
“At the end of the day, if I wasn’t going to Tokyo or I was going to Tokyo, I’m still happy with the journey that I’m on,” said Schmitt, who wore a T-shirt that she found online that says “Mental health is just as important as physical health.”
Schmitt got a pre-race pep talk from her old pal Michael Phelps, who is attending the meet with his family, and she said she also got “paragraphs of messages from Michael.”
“I was like, ‘Thanks, I needed to hear that,’” Schmitt said. “Sometimes you can get caught up in things and I think he just reminded me that swimming is such a small part of life. Yes, I love it and I’m so excited to be back and swimming again and competing again, but at the end of the day it is a sport and it doesn’t matter if you get first or last. You’re still loved by the same people and you’re still who you are.”
A Platform To Promote Mental Health
Schmitt’s openness in talking about her challenges have helped both Franklin and Micah Sumrall, a 2012 Olympian (then Micah Lawrence) who won the 200-meter breaststroke Thursday.
“It means that my voice is being heard," said Schmitt.
One of her favorite sayings is “It’s OK to not be OK.”
“It means the world that I can save one life,” Schmitt said, “or if I can save hundreds or millions, whatever it is, I’m happy that if I can be vulnerable and speak out about it that it can help someone else.”
Schmitt said she began experiencing depression in the post-Olympic whirlwind following the London Games. She is seeking a degree in social work at Arizona State University and hopes to work with athletes having similar problems.
“I can honestly say that having that regimen of going to practice saved my life,” said Schmitt, who said she would sit in bed crying and considered suicide. “As many times as people have said, ‘If swimming made you depressed, why are you swimming?’ – swimming did not make me depressed. Other factors did, and swimming actually saved me.”
However, Franklin said swimming played a different role in her depression.
“I think mine was more along the lines of causing it,” she said with a laugh. “I’m going to be very honest. There were a lot of days when getting up and going to practice was the absolutely last thing I wanted to do and then lying in bed almost made me feel worse about it, and more guilty, and kind of led to that spiral of emotions.
“There were negative feelings toward myself for not being able to motivate myself to go do something like that. So working through that and trying to go from that place of how I felt about swimming to trying to love it again has been quite the journey.”
Backstroke On The Horizon
Franklin still holds the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, which she set at the London Games when she won both the 100 and 200, but her training in the stroke has been impeded by her shoulder issues. She had to have a couple of cortisone shots before coming to California and said, “I can still be in a good amount of pain on any given day.”
Franklin and Bauerle have stressed building her base and endurance, but she is eager to get back to her signature stroke.
How did it feel not swimming backstroke at nationals? “Weird!” Franklin said with a laugh. “I was packing up all my caps and goggles and I didn’t put a nose clip in and I was like, ‘This is really emotional, but I think it’s good.’ I don’t think my backstroke is anywhere near where it needs to be right now. So I don’t think for my confidence or self-esteem it would have been good for me to go out there and not have a swim that I was happy with.”
Looking on the bright side, Franklin said that not swimming in the major international meets the next two years will allow her to focus more on training for 2020.
However, she has already contemplated what happens if she doesn’t make the Olympic team after putting herself through this grueling preparation.
“Every time I tell myself I would 100 times rather be sitting in Omaha in 2020 having not made the team knowing that I tried rather than looking back on these past two years and always thinking, ‘What if?’” Franklin said.
“So regardless of what happens, whether I’m even remotely close to even having a chance of making the team in 2020 or not, I’m going to fight to do so and that’s what I’m going to be most proud of myself for and that’s what’s going to define who I am.”