How Missy Franklin Went from Olympic Darling in 2012 to Olympic Underdog in 2016

Greg CouchNational ColumnistAugust 7, 2016

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JULY 16:  Missy Franklin talks with the media during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Training Camp Media Day on July 16, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It was the simplicity of the Missy Franklin story that turned her into America's sweetheart four years ago.

She was just a 17-year-old kid worried about typical 17-year-old stuff at a small all-girls Jesuit high school in Denver. She seemingly came out of nowhere to enter our national consciousness at the 2012 London Games as the picture of American power, grace, wholesomeness and athleticism. She broke records and won four gold medals. She was a natural. She was an instant star.

And now, blink, here she is four years later, her narrative ready to pick up in Rio where it left off in London.

Except, no, that isn't true. It just looks that way from the outside.

Unfortunately for swimming—and for most Olympics sports—this is what happens as far as the awareness of most sports fans, most Americans: We blink, and four years pass. And nothing happened in between. That's not how it works for athletes, though.

It's not how it worked for Franklin. Her narrative has changed significantly since London, from flying high to self-doubts and now back to the same place we left her: the Olympics. For her, this trip to the Games wasn't the same fun ride; this time was about grind and courage.

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By this past spring, Franklin was swimming slower than she had four years ago as she moved into what is supposed to be her prime. And while most might have been unaware of her struggles, the swim world was asking—quietly and never to her face—and theorizing about:

What went wrong with Missy Franklin? Was she making too many appearances for sponsors? Saying yes to too many charity and hospital visits? Is she just too nice? And what if she doesn't hit it big again in Rio after she turned away an estimated $5 million in endorsements by not turning pro after London? Did she make a big, life-altering mistake by going to college at Cal instead?

"She wants to be a good role model," said Kristen Vredeveld, her Cal teammate, college roommate and best friend.

"The hospital calls when she's at the Arthur Ashe Kids' Days and says, 'Gee, Missy, could you just come down for two hours and walk through the cancer ward just once?'" said her proud dad, Dick. "She's like, 'How do I get there?' That's Missy."

Marla R. Keown/Associated Press

Franklin's struggle to meet her own standards in the pool through it all culminated on one nerve-wracking night this summer at the U.S. Olympic swim trials in Omaha, Nebraska, when Franklin finished in seventh place in the 100-meter backstroke, failing to make the U.S. team in an event she won gold in at the London Games. She did rebound to make the Olympic team—three times over—but was still a little slower than before. She hasn't had a personal-best time since 2014.

That night, the questions, for maybe the first time, were actually out loud. In trademark Franklin grace, she stayed in the pool and hugged all six women who had beaten her. She then got out of the pool and continued smiling—another trademark—while explaining her frustration.

"I always had this idea in my head of the person that I wanted to be when I was going through challenges, and to be blatantly honest, when I was 17, I had never been through any challenges," she said. "My career had been up and up and up. I had a wonderful family, a wonderful life. I had never really struggled before."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

These past four years have been joyful and stressful for her. She has been stressed but not distressed, her mom, D.A. Franklin, said.

So what did happen?

Four years happened, the years from childhood to adulthood. Justin Bieber happened. The Harlem Globetrotters happened. College happened. Major life decisions, minor life decisions, growth, body changes, homework, moving away from home, coaching changes, winning the college national championship, injuries. Berkeley happened, and moving back home and changing coaches again happened. And also the big one:

The NCAA happened. Yes, the NCAA happened big time, forcing Franklin to make a pro-or-college decision that no one should have to make. The NCAA continues to cling to its ancient, made-up idea of amateurism for college athletes, even while sports bring in billions of TV dollars. Even the Olympics allow pros now. But American college athletes aren't allowed to cash in.

NCAA rules hounded Franklin for two years of college. Would you have gotten that gift package from fan Justin Bieber if it hadn't been for swimming? If not, then it's like a payment. That would make you a pro and not eligible for college swimming.

"Missy had over 6,000 letters that arrived at our door, came right to our home," D.A. said. "We had requests from all over the world for interviews, [to] be on the cover of Vogue magazine, all these offers. From South America, Europe.

"[Because of NCAA rules], she couldn't have an agent, couldn't have a publicist if she wanted to swim in college.

"I mean, I'm a physician. I didn't know how to handle these things. You wouldn't believe how much time I had to spend, for Missy's benefit, on the phone with the NCAA and a compliance officer at the college about every single thing that came up."

She handled it by taking time away from her practice for more than a year to answer all requests and to try to keep pressure away from her daughter. Missy believes that requests should be answered, even if the answer is "no, thank you."

"There was one time in New York," Dick said, "she got the opportunity to wear a designer dress for a red-carpet event. Without getting into too many details, we had to convince the NCAA that she would wear the dress for the event and then give it back at the end. I mean, ridiculous stuff."

Once, D.A. said, Missy was offered $500 to make an appearance at a Denver Broncos charity event. She could not take the money. Could she give it to a charity? No, because then it would pass through Missy. Could she have the Broncos give it directly to a charity?


If your kid is, say, a musician, he can go to college on a scholarship and make money on the side playing music gigs. If your kid is America's sweetheart for swimming, under the NCAA's amateurism rules, she cannot go to college on scholarship and make money on the side with swimming gigs.

The decisions Franklin had to make only hurt her, pressured her.

Slowed her down?

There is no life tragedy in this story, just life. Franklin's life, and all Olympians', goes on during non-Olympic years. Unlike most sports, in swimming you can be the best in the world as a kid and then have to transition from child to adult while trying to stay at the top.

Franklin is no longer a 17-year-old kid, but instead a 21-year old woman. There's a reason you see child actors who can't transition into their adult lives. There's a reason, too, that so many child athletes are focused on one thing, with all other responsibilities handled for them, then find themselves unprepared for adulthood.

For Franklin, the big decision came after London. Turn pro or go to college? Last year in the Wall Street Journal, a top Olympic agent estimated that Franklin could have immediately cashed in $5 million.

"What we were able to do was sit down as a family and say, 'OK, here's your situation,'" Dick said. "You stay amateur, swim for the Bears and have a ball. Or if you go pro, you can't swim for the Bears but have a chance to make X amount of money.

"While you might not understand what the money means because you're 18 years old, here's what it could mean: your financial future, your first house, your children's education. And by the way, if you don't go pro, you could step off a curb tomorrow, twist your ankle and never be fast again."

In the end, Franklin didn't like the sound of the schedule and lifestyle of professional life, with much of it being in a pool by yourself, swimming for yourself. She would have faced that for four years leading up to Rio. She also wanted an education. So she decided to go to Cal for two years, then turn pro, go to the Olympics—and go back to college not as a swimmer, but just as a student finishing work for her degree.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

"Being a part of a team has always been important to me, and I had such an amazing experience swimming for Regis Jesuit while in high school in Colorado," Franklin said. "I chose to go to Berkeley because it was the best fit for me first and foremost as a student but also as a collegiate swimmer. I knew there was something so special about the team atmosphere at Cal, and that was where I was meant to be."

Franklin said those things to Bleacher Report shortly before the Olympic trials this summer. But what if she didn't make the team, and all that endorsement money suddenly dried up? Would she regret passing on potentially as much as $5 million?

"You really cannot put a price on what it means to be a part of a team," she said. "I could have never imagined the strength I would feel getting up behind the blocks at a dual meet or NCAAs knowing that I had an entire family who believed in me.

"I've made friends from my college team that I know I will have for the rest of my life, and that's something I may have missed out on had I turned pro after London. With all that being said, I think that it's a decision that everyone has to make for themselves."

Franklin's two years at Cal were everything she'd hoped for, other than the back spasms: college life, friends, NCAA titles, teammates, camaraderie. Then in spring of 2015, she turned pro.

"For her to go another two years without going pro would have literally been the most silly financial move anybody could have ever made," Dick said. "It's her financial future, her ability to do what she wants with her life."

Yes, but this is where things turned.

Franklin said it had a lot to do with her back. D.A. said it had a lot to do with leaving her comfort zone and her best friends at Cal, including Vredeveld. Meanwhile, most of her old high school friends in Colorado weren't there anymore; they were off to college. Dick said he could only imagine the boredom of swimming alone, staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool hour after hour.

There was a lonesomeness that doesn't suit Franklin's personality.

But also she had to overcome a few issues from Cal. For one, Franklin was the world's best backstroker, but Cal already had some top backstrokers and needed Missy to do other things to help the team win.

She holds the world record and current Olympic gold in the 200-meter backstroke. She was not asked to swim the 200-meter backstroke in the NCAA championships. So that was time not spent training in her specialty.

Todd Schmitz, her longtime coach in Colorado, said that Missy's body had changed, too, as she became a woman. She gets more tired from travel than she used to, he said, and doesn't recover as fast as she did. And she has her own ideas, as any adult would, on training.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

She left Cal and all her friends and moved back to Colorado with her parents where she could train with Schmitz. She signed endorsement deals and traveled around the country making appearances while still training. Franklin said the appearances were more draining than she had anticipated.

Schmitz was able to travel with her to most of her sponsor appearances and was able to help keep her on her workout schedule as well as deflect additional, unexpected demands.

"She was very, very busy," D.A. said. "Yes, her coach was able to go with her, but she'd get up at 4:15 to do a 5-7 a.m. practice before a photo shoot for a commercial where she could be there till 7 at night."

Too many things, too many changes. Despite her constant smile, Dick and D.A. saw the stress.

"She has lived 10 years," Dick said, "in the past 12 months."

Vredeveld says she still talks with Missy nearly every day. But she doesn't describe Franklin as crying on her shoulder or anything like that. Just friends talking—the friendships Missy needs. She hasn't given up her end of the apartment with Vredeveld and plans to move back in when she returns to Cal after Rio.

"She's busy all the time, but we were able to FaceTime last night," Vredeveld said. "She probably has felt more pressure, but I think she has handled things so well. She's starting to do a good job of knowing when to take time for herself.

"Of course, everyone has good and bad days. I think she gives her all in everything she does. I think she's just kind of matured in the public eye."

She arrived at Omaha for the trials with some people wondering and whispering about whether she would make the team at all. Even David Marsh, Team USA's head women's swim coach, said his "heart breaks for her."

Meanwhile, Schmitz said he was glad that Team Franklin was enforcing a media and sponsor-event blackout that he had suggested.

Fifteen minutes later, Franklin was trying on a Globetrotters jersey for the media. The team drafted her even though she doesn't play basketball. She also answered questions about a charity she was helping in Omaha. And considering the timeline, it seems that Franklin answered some of the questions for this story via email during the blackout.

"I've been working hard this past year both in the pool and out of it, and I'm looking forward to this summer," she wrote. "I feel stronger and fitter than ever before, and I can't wait to show people all the work I've been putting in."

She said things were turning the right way again and that the goal was to make the team and be at her best in Rio. Maybe she's right. Maybe to the outside world, her story will always be seamless.


Greg Couch covers the Olympics for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @gregcouch.

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