Friday, May 24, 2024

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.

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