The women’s 200-metre freestyle at the national swimming championships served as a giant petri dish for studying the mental-health culture in the sport of swimming.
Advancing to the championship final was U.S. record-holder Allison Schmitt, a three-time Olympian and eight-time Olympic medalist who has talked openly of her struggles with performance anxiety and depression.
Finishing third in the “C” final, at 19th over all, was two-time Olympian and six-time Olympic medalist Missy Franklin, who saw in Schmitt’s runner-up finish a reason to believe she, too, could fight her way back to the surface.
Franklin, once the seemingly always exuberant girl so many predicted would be the next Michael Phelps, now finds herself trying to climb up from the deep, dark depths. Six years ago, when she was 17, she won four gold medals in London. This week, after last year’s double shoulder surgery and amid her continuing battle with depression, she failed to make the U.S. national team, which means her next major international meet will be the 2020 Olympics – if she can get there.
“You look at Allison Schmitt tonight, I’m so inspired by that,” Franklin said, after her race at the Woollett Aquatics Center, of another champion who has fought mental illness. “That was incredible what she was able to do and how quickly she was able to do it. But I think with that I have to be really careful not to compare myself to her, not to get really discouraged with where I am now.”
By the time Franklin finished that sentence, she was choking back tears. The show of vulnerability would qualify as a triumph. In 2016, Franklin made her second Olympics but failed to advance to the final in her two individual events. She settled for a single gold for a preliminary swim in a relay, and she tried mightily to put on a happy face. The effort left her depleted, depressed and desperate for answers.
Choking back more tears on Thursday night, Franklin said, “Working through that and trying to go from that place of how I felt about swimming to trying to love it again has been quite, quite the journey.”
Blazing the trail for Franklin, 23, is Schmitt, 28, who wore a T-shirt after her race that said, “Mental health is as important as physical health.” Puffing out her chest, she said, “Do you like it?”
Schmitt’s emotional downward spiral began shortly after she won five medals, including three golds, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Franklin’s mental health deteriorated after she won five medals, including four golds, in London and then chased it with six golds at the 2013 world championships.
Perhaps no one understands better the law of achievement, which holds that emotional crashes follow great flights of fancy, than Michael Phelps, a 28-time Olympic medalist. In 2014, he emerged from an eight-week stay at a recovery centre with a hard-earned wisdom that he has passed on to other elite athletes.
Like a lifeguard scanning the swimmers in his realm, Phelps recognized the knots of anxiety forming in Schmitt’s mind before Thursday’s race, her first major domestic final since the 2016 Olympic trials. Phelps, who attended the session, sent her a series of texts to remind her that her self-worth did not hinge on any swimming result.
In 2015, Phelps intuited Schmitt’s despair and offered his counsel if she needed to talk. He extended the same offer to Franklin in 2016 after observing that her signature sunny disposition was giving off less warmth. “I could see that she was struggling,” Phelps said. “It’s really hard when you come off one major Olympics and go into another one with pretty good momentum and things don’t go perfect. You can really beat yourself up so much and it’s unhealthy.”
Phelps, 33, said that “this big macho mentality” stood in the way of his seeking help. He speculated that Franklin’s ebullience became her roadblock. “That’s what people love, that’s what people saw,” he said. “So maybe that’s what she felt like she had to be. When you’re trying to be something that you’re not, it’s so hard. I know.”
Franklin’s progress was slowed by a back injury in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympics, and she sat out last year after undergoing double shoulder surgery. The physical setbacks, combined with the considerable expectations that her success created, took their toll on her, she said.
“Even in the hardest times that I went through, there was still effervescence, there was still joy, there was still happiness,” Franklin said. “That’s just who I am. But there was just now something deep within that that I wasn’t sure how to handle and how to figure it out.”
She said she had based her identity on being a champion swimmer “without even realizing I was doing it.” She added, “And then having that taken away was really, really tough.”
Franklin, who revealed her struggles with performance anxiety and depression last year, touched in 1 minute 59.25 seconds in the four-lap freestyle race, well off the 1:56.18 she clocked to qualify for her second Olympic team. But she tried not to dwell on the time since a preoccupation with results had precipitated her mental-health struggles in the past.
Franklin said no one – not even Phelps – could have come to her emotional rescue.
“I think even if Michael had come up to me and said something, which he’s always been there for me and shown that support, I still wouldn’t have really known what to do with that,” she said. “That was something I really had to work through on my own time.”
For Franklin, the joy of rediscovery began with putting herself first, no small feat for a self-described “people pleaser.” The move from the University of California, Berkeley, where she had been training with the Golden Bears’ men’s team, to Georgia, where she plans to complete work on her psychology degree, was a difficult first step in that direction.
“Winning was always fun, but it wasn’t why I did the sport,” Franklin said. “So now getting back into it, I’m really trying to figure out why I want to do this.” She added, “I think I’m literally in the best possible environment I could be in to find that joy again and figure out my why.”
The short answer for why Franklin has returned to the sport that has given her so much but, more recently, has caused her so much pain is that she doesn’t want to live with any regrets.
“I think about that long-term a lot when I’m looking at goals,” said Franklin, who is focusing on the 2020 Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. “Like what happens if you get that far, you train 2½ years in the most gruelling training circumstances; what happens if you get there and you don’t make it? And every time, I tell myself, I would 100 times rather be sitting in Omaha in 2020 having not made the team, knowing that I tried, rather than looking back on these past two years and always thinking, What if?”
The camaraderie Schmitt experienced during workouts at Arizona State, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work, kept her coming back. And a funny thing happened when she started having fun again. Her time Thursday of 1:55.82 – behind Katie Ledecky’s 1:54.60 – was nearly a second faster than she swam at the 2016 U.S. trials.
“I was in a very good spot in 2016,” Schmitt said. “I just don’t think I was all the way there. I probably still am not all the way there, but I’m getting better every day.”