Melissa “Missy” Franklin is a highly decorated American swimmer (she actually has dual US Canadian citizenship). She won 4 gold medals at the Olympics in London in 2012, and 11 gold medals at the world aquatic championships (a record until broken by Katie Ledecky in 2017). Missy retired from swimming competitively in 2018, because she was suffering severely from shoulder pain despite having undergone surgery for it. She co-authored her autobiography Relentess Spirit with her mom D.A. Franklin and dad Dick Franklin.
I have read a lot of inspiring stories of elite athletes and Missy’s is intriguing. It is often common for athletes who reach the top to have overcome some sort of adversity growing up that gave them the edge to train so hard. But Missy had a wonderful childhood, much of it in Colorado near Denver. An only child, she was not born until her parents were in their late 40s and financially comfortable. Her mother had a medical condition that prevented her from having children, so Missy was carried by a surrogate mother. She has met that mother and her husband and says they are very nice people. Her parents adored her and gave her plenty of encouragement growing up. She excelled in many sports before finally settling on swimming, in which she first showed excellence as a child with her club team. She had many friends growing up, and loved her numerous first cousins. She went to Regis Jesuit high school, where she also had lots of friends, and very much enjoyed being on the swim team. It was as a high school junior that she went to the London Olympics and had her amazing performance.
So where did the competitive edge come from? She defines relentless as always giving 100%, in training and in competition. I think it her case it came from joy. She loved what she was doing and her coaches and teammates, and giving 100% was expressing the full potential of her tremendous talent.
She went on to swim for “Cal” (UC Berkeley). There she had the great coach
Teri McKeever who believes in developing her athletes as human beings as much as swimmers. Missy had a great relationship with Teri and with her teammates, who were like sisters to her. She was one of the star performers that won the NCAA championships with Cal.
But now it was time to start pointing towards the Rio Olympics in 2016. US Collegiate sports are not always ideal training for the world stage. You may have to compete in multiple events to help your team score points, some of which are not your specialties that should be your priorities for training. This is worse in swimming because the NCAA uses 25 yard pools instead of the 50 meters at the Olympics. Missy decided it would be best to leave Cal and return to Colorado to train with her club coach and concentrate on the Olympics. She also worked with a great dryland trainer and physically appeared to be in the shape of her life. At the Olympic trials, though, she felt a bit “off”, and her times showed it. She failed to make the team in a event for which she’d previously set a world record and won a gold medal in London. She made it on the team in 3 other individual events and in the relay, but it was much more of a struggle than she anticipated.
Her struggles continued in Rio, where she failed to make the finals in any of her individual events, though She did win another gold medal in the relay. A hint as to what was wrong shows up in her description of training leading up to the Olympics, which sounds more like a grind than the swimming with joy we’d read about up to this point. Her training at Cal had been with her best friends every day. At home she trained largely alone, her former training partners all being off to college.
After Rio she followed her heart back to Berkeley but now started to be nagged by painful injuries. She ended up having both shoulders operated on, and struggled back after rehab. A last attempt at a comeback was a move to a new training situation in Georgia, but the shoulder pain just got worse. More surgery was the only option and did not look promising. Words from her fiance Hayes Johnson helped her decide: “I will support you fully, no matter what you choose. But what matters to me the most, more than anything, is that you can hold our children in your arms one day without being in excruciating pain”. So Missy retired in 2018 and is now looking forward to her next role as a mom.
Phrases like “no pain, no gain” and “embrace the suck” are prevalent nowadays, and have their place for motivation. But I think Missy’s story shows us there’s a lot to be said for participating in physical activity with joy.