Missy Franklin officially ended her swimming career Wednesday, but the real conclusion crashed into her life, and ours, on an August night in Rio.
She was standing in a hallway just outside the Olympic pool as she talked with a half-dozen American journalists. The swimmer who blazed to an unprecedented four goal medals at the 2012 London Olympics was trying to explain her failures in the 2016 Olympics.
“There’s a lot of things that I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this year about what’s been going wrong, but I’ve never been able to figure it out,” she said, her voice shaking on Aug. 8, 2016. “I don’t understand everything.”
I stood in that small crowd of sports writers. And it hit me: Missy Franklin was finished as an elite swimmer. She was only 21. Didn’t matter. It was over.
As Franklin steps out of the pool and embarks on her new life, she offers a complicated legacy.
In London, she showed the magnificent power of a young, supremely talented and hungry athlete. She was poised. She was filled with joy. She made it look so easy. She inspired shrieking support from her home state and became a Colorado folk hero.
“This is just another swim meet,” Franklin said, explaining her 2012 Olympic philosophy. “Yes, there is so much that goes along with it and there’s all this media and all these people, but it’s just another swim meet. The pool is the same length.”
A brilliant, simple philosophy, but her story quickly grew complicated. She wanted to swim in college, which meant she could not dive into the endorsement pool. This decision, which cost her around $5 million, made sense at the time. She was on her way to becoming the Michael Phelps of swimming, a talent who could splash her way to gold through the decades. She could grab all those millions after the 2016 Olympics, when she would be even more fully in her prime.
Her back and shoulders began to ache. She swam and studied at Cal-Berkeley for two years and reluctantly left her friends to return to Denver and turn pro, but the magic was gone.
She was hurting and weary when she arrived at Rio. The swimmer who revolutionized the sport at 17 was a has-been, by elite standards, at 21.
Her fall was excruciating to watch.
I listened to Franklin during a long media session at the Beverly Hills Hilton in March 2016. Her immense struggle was on the surface even then. She had wanted to stay in California with her teammates and friends. She was confused and alarmed by aches that were not normal for a 21-year-old.
She was buckling under the physical and mental demands of remaining a world-class swimmer who could conquer any challenger.
The disaster at Rio was just around the bend.
While listening to Franklin, I thought about the demands we — sports fans, sports writers — place on young athletes. We shout at TVs when a 19-year-old fumbles after a vicious hit. We roar in frustration at an arena after a 20-year-old misses a crucial free throw. We ask tough questions to a 21-year-old swimmer who already has departed her prime.
A few athletes — John Elway, Patrick Roy, Peyton Manning — can carry those burdens from youth to the onset of middle age. They soar for decades. Others, like Franklin, only soar for a little while.
In her retirement announcement, Franklin said she considers the 2016 Olympic ordeal her “greatest accomplishment.” Those are not empty words. I was there to witness her poise in defeat and her impossible-to-fake enthusiasm for victorious teammates.
“I was able to stay true to who I was as much in failure and disappointment as I had in winning and being the best in the world,” she wrote.
In 2012, we watched Franklin dominate swimmers from all over the world. So much seemed ahead.
Turns out, it was a mirage.
But Franklin rose above the confusion and humiliation. She struggled for a few years to recapture the glory of her teens, but that glory always was going to beckon from just beyond her reach. On Wednesday, she bid farewell to her burden.
I wish her nothing but the best.