The mystery of Missy Franklin

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Karin Goh/File

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Heartbreaking. Disappointing. That’s how Missy Franklin described her performance at the 2016 Summer Olympics. As Stanford’s Katie Ledecky, the other American representative in the 200-meter freestyle, took off against an elite field, Franklin was Team USA’s number one cheerleader instead of its number one swimmer.

Franklin walked away from the 2016 Olympics with a gold medal for her efforts in the preliminary round of the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, but her accomplishments weren’t a walk in the park and shouldn’t be undervalued. Earning a spot on Team USA is an achievement of a lifetime, an accomplishment few will ever get and even fewer will repeat. The disappointment Franklin sees in herself is a result of her Phelps-like performances at a mere 16 years old.

At the 2011 World Aquatics Championship, Franklin broke into the international scene. Before she turned 19, Franklin had 13 international gold, one silver and two bronze medals.

Following the 2013 World Championship, Franklin enrolled at UC Berkeley. Considering her early success, the decision was questionable. There wasn’t a reason for a coaching change, as Michael Phelps, for example, had one coach his whole life. Franklin was training in Colorado — where USA Swimming has its Olympic Training Center  — and it made Franklin’s ability to deal with oxygen, a crucial element to swimming, better than her competition.

But the choice ultimately made sense. Almost all of the sport’s best coaches are affiliated with a university. Despite the NCAA regulations on practice time, many athletes show incredible growth and development with collegiate programs. Franklin, a backstroke and freestyle specialist, was joining a staff and a program at Cal that helped develop Natalie Coughlin and many other elite backstroke and freestyle specialists.

By the summer of 2014, nothing appeared inherently wrong with Franklin. Her performances seemed fairly run-of-the-mill by her standards. At the qualifying meet for the 2014 Pan Pacific Swimming Championship and 2015 World Championship, Franklin had four top-two finishes in her usual races.

Several weeks later, she had severe back spasms, days before the Pan Pacific Championship started. From then on, she struggled. Although she added three international gold, three silver and three bronze medals in two summers, Franklin was noticeably off. She was way off her best times, and the world was catching up.

The mystery of Missy Franklin still hasn’t been solved. After turning professional, Franklin went back home, which was viewed as a smart decision. She had more international success while training in Colorado. But it’s been well over a year and Franklin seems to have become worse. Questions swirl as to whether the struggle of balancing swimming as both a career and lifestyle was too difficult for Franklin.

It’s also possible that her races in Rio were just the result of a bad week, and the glimpses of her former glory that she showed pre-Olympics are truly her competitive standard. Swimmers’ training regimens are designed for them to peak at the most important competition of the year. Comparing from year-to-year is difficult, but Franklin’s times in the preceding months were fairly comparable to her times leading up to the 2012 Olympics. With a reasonable peak, Franklin hitting career-best times this summer was plausible. But, Franklin couldn’t match her season-bests this summer, which suggests that a bad week was more likely. Only time can tell, however.

More importantly, Franklin needs to find her spark again. She must reshape her routine in order for her racing habits to change, as her past year didn’t reflect the dominant Olympian that she was at just 17. In the past, Franklin had incredible speed and size to out-race her competitors, which compensated for her poor starts and turns. But that hasn’t been the case for almost two years now. Franklin still has good — if not great — above-water speed, but her starts and turns have worsened.

The world probably won’t notice Franklin again until the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But she’ll have several major opportunities every summer and winter to assess her progress. Franklin’s major roadblock, however, will be trying to qualify for those international teams. Some of Team USA’s stars are committed to retiring, but this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials were pretty revealing of the staggering young talent that will be swimming in upcoming years.

There’s an incoming youth movement usurping the remaining veteran presence. At this year’s Olympic Trials, many teenagers and young collegiate swimmers were making their moves to the front. Franklin needs to find more internal grit and tenacity. When she placed second in the 200-meter freestyle, Franklin swam a gutsy race, which was enough proof that she has what it takes to stick around in the sport.

Franklin is planning to return to UC Berkeley for now. Her return won’t transform Cal into the favorites to win next year’s NCAA Championship because she can’t compete collegiately anymore. But for Franklin, this is a good move. As the focus of swimming for the Bears moves into short-course in the coming months, Franklin will have more opportunity to develop a turn that can help establish a quick race tempo by generating momentum and accelerating better. She’s returning to train under the tutelage of world-class coaches and will have access to high-performance training facilities and resources.

Franklin is and has been a dominant star, and she’ll probably continue to be. She’s only 21 right now. 2020 Tokyo Olympics isn’t out of the picture by any means and the 2024 Games might not be either. For now, Franklin will take the customary break from the pool but needs to find her rhythm in preparation for a challenging four years to come.

Contact Chris Zheng at [email protected].