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Retiring Swimmer Missy Franklin Embraces New Life, Reflects on Love for the Sport, and Reminisces on Olympic Success

Editor’s note: This article is part of our “Origin Stories” series, focusing on the backstories of athletes and topics around the Summer Olympics.The world has seen two very public sides of Missy Franklin — the bubbly, vivacious 17-year-old star who won four gold medals at the London Olympics in 2012, and the devastated 21-year-old who did not qualify for finals in either of her individual events in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Franklin would later say that she felt like “swimming broke up with (her)” at the Rio Games and that it was the most difficult thing she’s ever experienced. After trying and failing to fight through excruciating shoulder pain, Franklin officially retired from competitive swimming in December 2018. She faced the question that all ex-elite athletes stare down at some point: What happens next?

It’s a scary question, and it took her time to figure out the answers. She is now comfortable in retirement, adding the labels of wife, mom, and philanthropist alongside former swimmer. In early January, she will add another: She’s starting a new podcast, “Unfiltered Waters,” with fellow swimmer Katie Hoff.

The Athletic recently caught up with Franklin for a wide-ranging conversation about the origin of her love of swimming, her relationship to the sport in retirement, and all of the ups and downs that happened in between.
I was recently rereading the first-person essay you wrote for ESPN when you retired. At the end, you mentioned being ready to start the rest of your life, and it seems like you have found areas that are fulfilling to you. But I can imagine for an athlete, retiring at a relatively young age could be really overwhelming or challenging? Or maybe exciting?
At first, it was definitely overwhelming and challenging. This is something that I’m super vocal about now because, as a sporting community, I don’t feel like we do enough to prepare athletes for that transition, for retirement. Ideally, you’re not retiring when you’re 23 years old, like I did. But no matter what age you retire, if sports has been a big part of your life for a long time, you don’t have other job experience and there’s never a Plan B because your sole focus and energy and time has been being an elite athlete. And then it’s not like it’s this smooth transition out where you’re slowly weaned off of it. It is cut off. You are cut off from this thing you’ve done your whole life. The next day, it is gone. There’s just so much emotional trauma that goes through that, that process and that decision.
When I retired, there was a lot of fear. I had no idea what was going to come next. I had no idea what my future looked like. It was just a lot of self-trust and me knowing that what I’ve always had more than anything is a work ethic. I just had to lean on that and know that what’s going to come next is going to require a lot of work. Swimming has given me this platform that I want to be able to continue to use and grow. And that was our starting point.
That must have been hard.
I literally thought that once I was done swimming, I didn’t know how I was going to make a living. And so now, the fact that I’m able to make a living and contribute to our family, financially and emotionally, and I’m still able to be there for my daughter every second of every day while doing what I love — it’s like it all just is utterly a dream come true. And it turned out so much better than I could ever have imagined as a 23-year-old absolutely terrified of what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
So, what led you to start this podcast specifically? And how did you figure out what you were going to cover?
It was (Hoff’s) idea. … In the simplest terms, our podcast is about discovering the person beneath the athlete. We want our listeners to get to know our athletes, learn more about their careers, but also who they are as people and what things bring them happiness and joy and fulfillment because we feel now having been spectators of the sport and other sports, of course, you feel more emotionally invested when you feel like you know the person that you’re watching.
So far, our guests have just been so lovely. They’ve been really vulnerable. So we’ve been having wonderful conversations, and I think it’s going to be so powerful for our audience to hear these elite, elite athletes — the best in the world — talk about their struggles and their hard times and how they overcame them, but also the moments that make it worth it and what they’re learning outside of the water. We’re starting in the swimming space because that’s what we know best, but our dream is to expand as far as this will go.
It’s interesting that you mention starting with swimming and athletes in it, because I know you really struggled with how you felt about the sport toward the end of your career, particularly in Rio. I wanted to know what your relationship with swimming is like these days.
I want to say hit or miss, but that’s not the right way to describe it.
I would say my relationship with swimming today is that I will always love it. I will always appreciate it. But even at this point in my life, I still need to step back from it every once in a while. Something that I learned along my own journey is that if I don’t take that step back, that’s when my self-worth can get too wrapped up in the sport.
When I was competing, it was my self-worth getting wrapped up in my success and my failures and feeling like I was a better person and a better human if I was competing well versus if I wasn’t and that somehow reflected who I was, which in no way it actually did.
Do you swim at all anymore? I know you were dealing with some serious shoulder pain.
.
I really did not swim for five years after I retired, but the bug just hit me a little bit this past fall. I think it was because my husband was training for Ironmans this year. He was doing a good bit of swimming again. He would kind of come home at 7 a.m. already gotten his swim workout in, smelling like chlorine.
And I was like, “Oh man, I think I miss it.” So, I actually got all my equipment again. I’m feeling ready to start up here pretty soon. Nothing serious. I think I’m honestly just going to start off going to the pool by myself. I might eventually join a Masters team just for fun, but we’ll see what my body is going to allow me to do at this point. I’m pretty much just one speed, but I’m perfectly fine with that. I can’t push it too hard.
I will go to my grave saying it is just the best form of exercise. It is so low-impact. It’s available to everyone and any stage of your life, and I think that’s something that’s so beautiful about it.
So, how did it all begin? How did you fall in love with this sport as a little girl, and when did you realize you were quite good at it?
I got started in the sport because my mom was actually terrified of the water. She didn’t learn how to swim until she was in her 30s, and that is why I do so much work with the USA Swimming Foundation around drowning prevention and swim lessons and saving lives.
My mom didn’t want to pass that fear on to me. She put me in a “mommy and me” class at our local YMCA when I was six months old. I did everything else growing up to see what I love. …
My parents let me gravitate towards what it was that I loved, and that was always swimming.
I was swimming, basketball and soccer until I was like 9 or 10 years old, and then I really solely focused on swimming because I made my first Olympic trial cuts when I was 12, and I competed there when I was 13.

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