Missy Franklin had the worst experience of her life this summer. Honestly, she’s still processing the Rio Olympics.
“I kind of felt like swimming broke up with me,” Franklin said last week, “so now we’re trying to rehabilitate the relationship.”
The first step was deciding to return to the University of California, which Franklin announced Aug. 15 in Rio, four days after her final swim at her second Olympics.
Franklin had earned four gold medals at the London Games at age 17. She followed that up with one medal in Brazil (gold as a prelim swimmer on a relay), the nadir of a descent since she took six golds at the 2013 World Championships.
“It’s not always sunshine and rainbows, which, at 17, I thought it was,” said Franklin, whose first major setbacks were serious back spasms in August 2014.
Franklin spent her freshman and sophomore years competing for the Cal Bears before turning professional in spring 2015 and moving back into her parents’ basement in Colorado.
She has attributed her recent problems in the pool to a lack of balance out of it. The solution? Returning to a team environment at Cal (though she’s ineligible to compete for the Bears), to her college friends, to schoolwork.
It was all so familiar, except Franklin chose a different coach. Back at Berkeley in September, Franklin began training under Cal men’s coach Dave Durden rather than her previous women’s team coach, Teri McKeever.
Both Durden and McKeever have trained pro swimmers in addition to the college teams.
So why Durden?
“You learn so much just by observing on a pool deck how a coach interacts with their athletes, just the kind of coach they are, the kind of teacher they are,” Franklin said. “I always just loved the way Dave interacted with his athletes. … I’ve never heard a bad word about him. He’s obviously an incredible coach, that speaks for itself, especially with the results from this summer.”
Five of Durden’s men made the U.S. Olympic team for Rio, and three won individual medals. Most notably, Ryan Murphy swept the backstrokes, just as Franklin had done at the 2012 London Games.
This summer, Franklin failed to make the U.S. team in the 100m back and failed to make the Olympic final in the 200m back.
“Knowing that she was coming back to Cal, that we have a good professional group of athletes that look at swimming a little bit different [than college swimmers] … it was just a really good fit,” Durden said.
Natalie Coughlin, the predecessor to Franklin as Olympic 100m back champion, made the switch from McKeever to Durden after the 2012 Olympics and found benefits in training with men.
Coughlin, 34, has “popped in and out” of training since missing the Rio Olympic team, Durden said. Franklin has traveled some while taking online classes. She’ll enroll on campus in the spring.
When Franklin returns to competition, some time in 2017, it will be after the longest break between meets of her career. For now, she’s finding peace in training.
“I’ve never enjoyed going to practice so much,” said Franklin, whose book about her upbringing and swimming, “Relentless Spirit,” comes out Dec. 6. “It’s almost therapeutic in a way. Swimming is like my counselor at the same time. It’s a time where I can go and think about what’s going on in the world, think about my classes, about midterms coming up. Or it’s a time where I can just go and think about absolutely nothing at all. I don’t know what I would do without that time every single day. I also do it to inspire others. I truly feel like God has given me a gift for this sport, and it’s what I’m meant to be doing.”
She still thinks about her homecoming from Rio, seeing a lawn full of messages from neighborhood kids scribbled on paper hearts. Notes from one struggling young swimmer stood out in particular.
“She told herself to keep her head high and keep pushing forward, because that’s what she watched me do at the Olympics,” Franklin said. “Stuff like that makes it worth it.”
Franklin has always tried to make the 100m and 200m frees and the 100m and 200m backs her program at major international meets. Could that change?
“We haven’t even gotten there,” Durden said. “Right now it’s just doing the day-to-day.”Follow @nzaccardi