NEW YORK (Reuters) - A “star in the making” were the prophetic words of an announcer who had just witnessed 16-year-old Missy Franklin slice up the competition at swimming’s 2011 world championships.
Franklin, who would just as soon use her 6-foot-four-inch wingspan to hug a competitor as she would to demolish them in the pool, harnessed an upbeat outlook that propelled her to the greatest heights of her sport and helped her weather the crushing lows.
Rocketing to acclaim at 17, Franklin took home five medals from the 2012 London Olympics, including four golds, and set a world record in the 200 metres backstroke, becoming a household name in the United States despite turning down lucrative endorsements to pursue a college career.
She became a source of hope and inspiration for the Aurora, Colorado community during her 2012 Olympic run, as the town where she grew up reeled from a deadly mass shooting inside a cinema, telling reporters she wanted to make Colorado proud.
“For Missy to take time in the midst of her finest moment to think about her hometown and how she can help in its healing is an incredible statement about her character,” Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said at the time.
She claimed six golds at the 2013 World Championships, the most ever by a female swimmer at one edition.
Yet a relatively disappointing showing at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she took home a solitary relay gold, cut the fairytale short as she discovered she had fallen out of love for the sport.
Franklin failed to qualify for the final in the 200m backstroke in Rio, the event in which she had set a world record four years previously, after qualifying for only three events at trials.
“I felt like David facing Goliath but I didn’t have any stones in my pocket,” she told reporters in Rio.
Yet while the loss of form may have surprised some, Franklin said in her 2016 book “Relentless Spirit” that she knew at the U.S. Olympic Trials, long before she arrived in Rio, that it was not her year.
“I hated that the sport I’d loved so much, had given me so much, was making me feel the way I was feeling during trials,” she wrote. “So unsure of myself. So off my game.”
Franklin wrote that she resolved to stand as a different kind of role model in defeat.
“It’s one thing to inspire all these little girls by winning a bunch of medals. That’s easy,” wrote Franklin. “But it’s another thing entirely to be an inspiration when things aren’t exactly going your way.”
She missed the world championships in 2017 to recover from surgery and retired in 2018, after years of pain caused by shoulder injuries.
Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Toby Davis