Five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin began swimming at age 5 in Colorado and was working with a professional coach by age 7. She knows the discipline it takes to haul out of bed at 4 a.m. most days, swim for two hours or more, then lift weights, all before heading to school—followed by more training.
She did all that for years and won her first Olympic gold medals at 16, at the London Games in 2012, in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke events, swimming the latter in record time. But for all her hard work, Franklin doesn’t begin to think she did it alone.
If you had to do a practice and swim in a pool for two hours, would you rather do it alone or with 20 of your closest friends? —Missy Franklin
When she was on the podium after her first gold medal in London, she says she was wishing she could thank the long list of people who helped get her there—starting with her parents, teammates and coaches.
“I was also hoping I didn’t forget the words of the national anthem,” she says with a laugh.
Franklin spoke onstage with J.J. Gentry, counsel for the South Carolina Senate and NCSL’s staff chair, during the “Salute to Legislative Staff Lunch,” part of NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Denver on Tuesday.
She says while as a swimmer she was alone in her lane in competitions, it was her teammates who challenged and supported her. They made it possible for each other to maintain the grueling effort.
“If you had to do a practice and swim in a pool for two hours, would you rather do it alone or with 20 of your closest friends?” she says. “There’s a reason why swimmers don’t train by themselves every single day; we train as a team because that’s how we push each other.”
Franklin is grateful for her competitors, too: She says she wouldn’t have achieved her best times without them.
It’s not all kumbaya. Training and competing at an Olympic level require consistent mental toughness, and Franklin says she always aims to fight burnout with balance—“my two B-words.” It wasn’t easy when she trained four to six hours a day. But her parents made sure she had “normal” high school experiences.
“Did I have to go to practice the next morning? Yes! But I still got to go to prom,” Franklin says.
“I think that part of the reason my Olympic Games in London were so successful is we made balance a priority in my life,” she says. “My parents and I would sit down and say, of course, going to the Olympics, winning a gold medal is the dream. That’s the goal, but I’m still 16 years old. So what can we do during this time to make sure I’m still experiencing the normalcy of a (teenager’s) lifestyle?”
And she acknowledges balance can be elusive, especially for an athlete who has been working for years to grab that Olympic gold. She praises athletes who’ve recently publicly chosen not to compete because of the state of their mental health, including tennis player Naomi Osaka of Japan and gymnast Simon Biles, both of whom withdrew from competition in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
“I think that was really illuminating for a lot of people when Simone said, ‘My mental health is more than this competition,’” says Franklin, who had to reevaluate her own career after a physical injury.
She pushed through a severe shoulder injury just four months before the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. After that, she had surgery and endured months of rehab but was still in pain. Then she learned she needed additional surgery with many more months of rehab and no guarantee it would fully address the injury. The process would have left her a year to get back in shape for the Tokyo Games, if she did recover fully.
“I just didn’t feel like I could go through all of that and be the best I’ve ever been, and I knew looking at my physical and mental health that would not be the best position for me,” Franklin says.
So at 23, she retired from the sport instead. And her retirement has been a busy one.
Since then, Franklin, who is now 27, has earned a psychology degree, gotten married, given birth to a daughter and written a book with her parents, “Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.