RIO DE JANEIRO – Missy Franklin’s Olympics ended Thursday night. Not with a podium trip and applause and a medal around her neck, the recurring scene from 2012. This different, demoralizing experience ended with one last unspectacular swim, a heartfelt hug from teammate Maya DiRado and one more inglorious exit from competition.
The last stand was the 200-meter backstroke semifinals. Franklin finished 14th in an event where she owns the world record. That’s how far she’s fallen.
Four years ago, at age 17, Franklin paid six visits to the podium, four to the top step. She was the star-spangled female swimming hero of the London Olympics. She was huge news.
In Rio, the 21-year-old Franklin hasn’t even swam in a final, much less been on the podium. Franklin qualified for the American team in only two individual events, the 200 freestyle and 200 backstroke, and failed to make the top eight in either. She did win a gold for a semifinal leg on the U.S. 800 freestyle relay Thursday, but that was delivered in a box by a USA Swimming staffer behind the scenes.
Thursday afternoon, after another in a series of lackluster swims – this time in the 200 back prelims – Franklin was asked what she’s learned from the adversity she’s dealt with throughout 2016.
“I’ll let you know in a couple weeks,” she said. “Right now it sucks.”
Franklin followed that with her characteristic laugh. She was perfectly pleasant, even while perfectly miserable. She knows no other way to act around people, which is one of the reasons this was such a difficult demise to watch.
But beneath the bubbly exterior is a young woman in turmoil. She said she’s relying on her faith in God, and leaning on her parents, D.A. and Richard Franklin, for support.
“It’s hard right now,” she said. “Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to go through.”
Amid an otherwise upbeat swimming performance for the United States, Franklin’s bust has been the buzzkill.
But while this came as a surprise to mainstream fans who don’t pay attention to swimming until the Olympic flame is lit, everyone within the sport saw it coming for a long time. Franklin simply hadn’t swam up to her own standards in a long time.
There was a brief blip of optimism after a solid Arena Pro meet in Orlando during the winter, but there was no sustained momentum from that. Franklin came to Omaha for Olympic trials in June speaking confidently about the benefit she was feeling from a good taper, but that turned out to simply be wishful thinking. Other than a gutty swim to grab the second American spot in the 200 free, nothing she did in Omaha was impressive.
The unanswered question is why? What happened to Missy the Missile? Where did all that talent go?
Theories are plentiful. Concrete reasoning much less so. Among the most popular theories:
• A lot changes between 17 and 21, and Missy doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. Or where she wants to be.
A year after the London tour de force, Franklin left home in Denver for college at California. She departed the Colorado Stars club team, where she trained under Todd Schmitz, to work with ’12 Olympic women’s coach Teri McKeever.
Some wonder whether going off to college was harder on Franklin’s family than on Missy herself. She was an only child raised by wonderfully supportive parents, but letting go wasn’t easy. There was some conjecture that they would move to the Bay Area to be nearby, though that never happened.
Two years into her stay at Cal, after leading the Golden Bears to the 2015 NCAA championship, Franklin turned pro and decided to return home to Denver. It was a smart business decision – she has made a ton of money in endorsements – but with that came both a new job and an old comfort zone. Both those things might have been detrimental, especially if Franklin loved the college student-athlete experience as much as she said.
Staying with McKeever as a pro might not have been the answer – there has been a lot of turnover on the Cal women’s side lately. But returning to Schmitz hasn’t been the answer, either. And then there is the family dynamic – largely positive, but maybe not in a swimming sense.
Given the frequency with which swimmers change coaches, it would seem logical that Franklin gives someone else a try to get her back on track going forward. But it would require a people pleaser to break some eggs with a coach she’s known forever and loves.
• Mike Tyson Syndrome.
For her entire life through 2012, Franklin’s swimming growth curve was basically an uninterrupted rise. She was a record-breaking phenom who splashed onto the national scene in 2008, making a name for herself without making the American team at the Olympic trials that year. By 17, she was an absolute monster prepared to play a dominant Olympic role in the freestyle and backstroke events.
It was all so easy.
Then adversity hit – a back injury ruined her 2014 summer, and recovery from that was slow. The question is whether that also injured her psyche and confidence, the same way Tyson became a shadow of himself after Buster Douglass proved him mortal.
She dedicated herself to what she described as the hardest training of her life over the last year. But the results haven’t followed, and that’s when swimmers really start to question themselves.
“I’ve made the hardest sacrifices I’ve ever made,” she said Thursday afternoon. “I’ve poured everything I had into this season.”
Franklin was a great big-race swimmer for most of her life, but she hasn’t brought anything approaching the necessary confidence for that to Rio. Nor did she in Omaha.
• Her stroke technique and underwaters were never great, and now it matters.
Franklin covered up borderline sloppy swimming with strength, size, determination and belief. If those core attributes are shaken or at all diminished, the technical flaws have become more glaring and more costly.
It is very hard at age 21 to tear down stroke technique and rebuild, but Franklin may be facing some of that as part of a reboot. Which would be all the more reason for a coaching change.
Franklin was adamant here that she isn’t ready to give up the sport. She described it as bad meet, but in reality it’s been a bad year – maybe even longer than that. This is not a 10-day problem.
America would welcome her big smile and big personality back in 2020. But there is a lot of work to do to make that happen.