Asked if any other athlete’s comeback inspired her, Missy Franklin didn’t need to think back very far.
She recalled July 14. The recent University of Georgia transfer student remembered doing homework on her laptop that Saturday afternoon and receiving a phone news alert. A headline stated Serena Williams missed in her comeback from pregnancy because she lost the Wimbledon final.
“I don’t get angry, like that’s not an emotion that I feel,” the still-effervescent Franklin said, “but I was so upset that they could have called her comeback falling short of anything.”
Williams returned to the WTA Tour six months after a pregnancy that was followed by pulmonary embolism complications and many surgeries that left her bedridden for six weeks.
“It’s a totally different comeback,” Franklin said of her own story, “but also not really. She’s coming back to inspire, and that’s what I want to do.”
Franklin swims at the U.S. Championships this week in her first major meet since a disappointing Rio Olympics, where she earned zero individual medals. Her lone medal, a gold, came as a relay swimmer in the morning preliminary heats. She was not chosen to swim the final.
Five years ago, the 6-foot-2 Franklin towered above the swim world. She claimed four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and six at the 2013 World Championships, before going to college, and looked like the one to usher in the post-Michael Phelps era (Phelps was retired at the time).
Beginning in 2014, Franklin struggled through back and shoulder injuries, coaching and training location changes and even mental health.
Though Franklin felt physically fantastic going into the Rio Olympic summer, she had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Franklin revealed that to a group of young female athletes more than a year later at the Lead Sports Summit. She now says she felt comfortable coming forward after Phelps and Allison Schmitt shared about their mental health.
“It really inspired me to be open and honest and real,” Franklin said. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the past three, four years is that, for me, the biggest reason why we go through what we go through during hard times and suffering is not only so we can grow from it but so that we can help others grow from it as well. In order to do that, we need to be open and honest and vulnerable.”
Franklin carries that attitude to nationals in Irvine, Calif., this week. She is entered in just two events — the 100m and 200m freestyles. She is skipping the backstrokes, which were her bread and butter in 2012 and 2013.
Franklin raced for the first time since Rio at smaller meets in France and Spain last month. Bauerle wanted her return to be low-key rather than diving back into the domestic Pro Series.
“I thought I was going be a total wreck before my first swim,” Franklin said, “but I was actually very calm.”
Her freestyle times rank 47th and 10th among U.S. swimmers this year, according to FINA.
She must finish in the top four in one of the two events this week, or she misses the 2018 Pan Pacs and 2019 World Championships, the two biggest international meets between now and the Tokyo Olympics.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself,” Franklin said. “I’m doing my best to be prepared for both scenarios.”
Franklin is pleased with her progress since transferring from the University of California to Georgia for the spring semester. She called it “unbelievable” but could not compare her form to any previous point in her career.
“It’s almost like it’s two different people and two different athletes,” Franklin said.
She’s trained under Georgia’s coach of the last 39 years, Jack Bauerle, who has put Franklin into more distance training than ever before.
“She’s not going to be where she was yet,” Bauerle said. “But we’re stepping in the right direction, that’s the biggest thing.”
Franklin said her surgically repaired shoulders are still “an ongoing process” that must be dealt with day to day. She and Bauerle stressed building a freestyle base and hope to incorporate her backstroke more over time.
“We had to walk gingerly at first,” Bauerle said. “We just knew we couldn’t hurry. Physically, it’s not the thing to do. Everyone expects her to be when she’s at her very, very best. That’ll take time.”
In interviews, Franklin is still the bubbly presence that attracted fans four and five years ago. Now, towing a comeback story and vulnerable message to inspire, she hopes to be just as magnetic splashing back into the competition pool.
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