Retired Olympian Missy Franklin talks new water safety campaign

Missy Franklin
Karin Goh/File

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In the history of competitive swimming, only two women have ever won at least five Olympic gold medals and 11 world championship gold medals: Stanford’s Katie Ledecky and Cal’s Missy Franklin. After an illustrious career filled with 16 gold medals and two FINA Athlete of the Year awards, a long battle with shoulder injuries prompted Franklin’s decision to retire in 2018.

Although no longer able to compete in the water, Franklin has found a way to leave her mark on land with the new Saving Lives is Always in Season campaign.

The foundation is the philanthropic branch of USA Swimming. Every year, there is a Make a Splash tour with Phillips 66, in which Franklin and other Olympic swimmers travel to different cities to host events and swim lessons.

“We talk about the importance of learning how to swim and drowning rates, and how prevalent drowning still is in our country and how swim lessons can reduce your risk of drowning by 88%,” Franklin said.

The Cal alumna and former Olympian took her first swim lessons at a mere 6 months old. She believes that it is important for children to begin swim lessons as early in their lives as possible to familiarize themselves with the water.

“I don’t really think any age is too early,” Franklin said. “The sooner that your child is in the water, it becomes something that they want to improve upon.”

Waiting too long could create potential fears for the child, which would make lessons at that point much more difficult, she explained. That is why it is crucial to begin swim lessons as soon as possible, even if the weather is less than ideal.

“Swimming is not just for the summer months,” Franklin said. “You should not be waiting until May to get into swim lessons. We have learn-to-swim schools; we have indoor pools that are open all year round that are providing those kinds of opportunities for use.”

It’s important to keep on swimming year-round, as it is difficult to make progress if children are not swimming for nine months at a time. However, due to COVID-19, parents are rightfully concerned about their children’s safety. Swim lessons require contact, especially for small children who are only just beginning their swim journeys. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a safe activity, but in reality, it is one of the safest sports anyone can participate in right now.

“We truly believe that with the right precautions, it is still safe to have pools open. It has been scientifically shown in properly chlorinated water, COVID-19 is not transmitted,” Franklin said. “And the pools that are open are following incredible safety protocols. … I think as long as pools are really staying firm to these protocols and these procedures, they are really safe environments for people to be in right now.”

Some of these procedures and protocols include limiting the number of people in the pool, coming to the pool with swimsuits on to avoid the locker room, wearing masks and personal protective equipment when not in the water and providing symptom screenings for pool staff.

This brings up an important question: What if there are no pools available near me? What can I do? Even without pool access, kids can still do some learning from home. Franklin suggests watching learn-to-swim videos and practicing “basic things like learning how to blow bubbles or putting your head under the water” in your bathtub.

The goal of these swim lessons is to help children acclimate to the water and thus prevent drowning, as it is so prevalent among young children. Franklin stressed that word of mouth is a key piece to the anti-drowning puzzle.

“Make sure that everyone around you knows the importance of swim lessons and how important they are in reducing drowning rates because we still have at least 10 people every single day that drown, and 25% of them are children,” Franklin said. “It is the leading cause of accidental death in children aged 1 to 4. We have a solution: It’s swim lessons.”

Drowning is one of the most preventable types of accidental death, so it is important for parents to be aware of their child’s location when within the vicinity of water and for lifeguards to be properly trained so they can be prepared in case of an emergency.

Despite having no intention of making a comeback from her retirement, Franklin does still miss the pool.

“I do miss it, but I have no regrets, and I know that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be right now,” she said. “I’ve never been happier, and I’ve never felt more fulfilled.”

For more information, visit usaswimming.org/savinglives.

Tom Aizenberg is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].