Olympian Missy Franklin On Swimming’s Highs And Lows, Then Facing Depression

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Photo: Missy Franklin London 2012 | AP
United States' Missy Franklin starts in a women's 100-meter backstroke swimming heat at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Missy Franklin was the golden girl of the 2012 London Olympics. Night after night, she stood in the spotlight, her broad swimmer’s shoulders draped in medals and her impossibly bright smile dazzling fans and sponsors.

Four years later there was crushing disappointment. Franklin lost every one of her individual races in Rio de Janeiro. She’s spent much of the time since then battling depression.

“I had based my identity completely into the sport of swimming,” she said. “When the winning stopped it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, what else do I have to offer?’ Like, I am nothing if not swimming, if not successful."

“I just had these horrible thoughts about myself that were so critical -- feeling like I wasn’t worthy, I wasn’t doing anything right. I wasn’t worthy of love, of kindness, if I wasn’t able to go out and do the one thing I felt like I was supposed to be doing, which was swimming well.”

Today, she’s a student at the University of Georgia, and she says she’s found herself again.

“I like to phrase it as swimming has been a huge part of my life and a huge part of who I am, but it does not define me," she said.

Her faith, she said, helped restore her. “My faith has been a huge part of my life since high school and for me, personally, when I’m able to live out every day knowing first and foremost that I’m a loved daughter of God, that puts everything in perspective for me.”

Franklin was born in California and grew up in Centennial, a suburb south of Denver. She started swimming at age 5 and competed in her first Olympic trials when she was 13. Her parents, Dick and D.A., offered constant encouragement, but she says they worked hard to make sure she had balance in her life.

“The best thing they’ve ever, ever done is love me as me, never Missy the swimmer. I never in a million years felt that pressure from them. I think that was 110 percent internal," she said.

Her struggle, she said, was “easily 100 percent harder on my parents than it was on me -- having them watch this bouncing daughter of joy and happiness become someone in that darkness trying to find my way out … Now, being the place where I am it’s amazing having my parents look at me and telling me how proud they are of me.”

Franklin isn’t the only elite athlete, or even swimmer, to deal with mental health issues. Michael Phelps, with 28 medals the most decorated athlete in U.S. history, has spoken about his problems, as has Franklin’s teammate, Allison Schmitt. Franklin hopes by speaking out she can bring attention and new resources to the fight many athletes face “so they know that first off they’re alone (and) that there are so many things after sport that they can look forward to.”

At the depths of her depression Franklin thought about quitting swimming “100 percent -- every day.” Now she’s back in the pool, training with a new coach. But she’s also struggling to recover from two shoulder surgeries, and she failed to make the finals in any of her events at the recent U.S. nationals. “I’m still in a lot of pain and training is really hard ...but my ultimate goal is Tokyo in 2020 and whether I get there or not I’m going to know I fought every day to be there.”