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Life after swimming: What's next for Olympic champ Missy Franklin

Franklin opens up about her difficult decision to retire, how she has learned to overcome anxiety and offers tips for parents of young children in light of National Water Safety Month.
Image: Missy Franklin, Olympics Day 3 - Swimming
Missy Franklin of the United States celebrates with her gold medal during the medal ceremony for the Women's 100m Backstroke on Day 3 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre in London on July 30, 2012.Adam Pretty / Getty Images file

Five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin made the difficult decision to retire from competitive swimming at the age of 23 due to a chronic shoulder injury. But she’s taking the lessons she’s learned in the pool and applying them to the next chapter of her life.

“I’m still in awe of what swimming has taught me, and I’m still learning about what swimming has taught me,” Franklin told MSNBC anchor Yasmin Vossoughian. “Leadership is huge, being vocal and being supportive and encouraging of the people around you. Being on a team was always my favorite part of swimming.”

Recently, she has swapped swim training and meets for becoming involved in foundations, working with sponsors, running and taking yoga and barre classes—and on top of all that, planning her September wedding. Franklin is engaged to fellow swimmer Hayes Johnson.

Franklin, who set the world record for the 200m backstroke and is also the author of “Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion,” opened up about how she had been dealing with a shoulder injury for quite a while and didn’t want to put herself in a situation where she would have intense pain for the rest of her life.

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At the pinnacle of her career, she made the difficult decision to retire in December 2018. She recounted Johnson telling her, “I want you to be able to hold our children one day and not be in pain.” Franklin said she looks forward to being a mother one day.

Missy Franklin and and Hayes Johnson guest attend the 2018 Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco on Feb. 27, 2018.Christian Alminana / Getty Images for Laureus

How leadership, self-motivation and passion guide her

Growing up, Franklin’s self-motivation led her to success. “The Olympics were my goal, not theirs [her parents’], so they couldn’t be the ones coming into my room every morning pulling me out of bed to get to practice. It was my responsibility to set my own alarm and get out of bed in the morning, and if I didn’t, I didn’t go to practice—but that never happened, because I knew it was my goal and my responsibility,” Franklin said.

She encouraged all parents to identify what their children are most passionate about and to support their dreams. “Don’t look for where your child has talent, look for where your child has passion,” Franklin explained. “It’s about the child and what they love and an area where they can grow in. For me, that was swimming.” She explained, “I always had the fattest smile on my face when I was in the water.”

Missy Franklin of the U.S. reacts after winning the women's 100m backstroke final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 30, 2012.Toby Melville / Reuters file

When working to achieve your dreams, Franklin emphasized the importance of never setting limits on yourself. “Set your goals as high as possible,” she said. “Once you reach them, you have to keep setting higher and higher ones.”

Finding strength in a challenge to overcome anxiety

Franklin also candidly spoke up about her battle with anxiety and shared lessons to help others in a similar situation.

“I was 17, had the Olympics of my life, and four years later, I come back at 21, and all of a sudden everyone is expecting me to do not only just as well, but better,” she said. “I’m not a rookie anymore, I’m not as naïve as I was when I was 17, so I start letting all of this in. Now, instead of swimming because I love it and I want to be my best, I’m swimming because I didn’t want to disappoint other people.”

“That completely rocked my world,” Franklin admitted. “That’s what led to depression, insomnia, anxiety, all of it. The pressure that you feel, it’s truly indescribable.”

Franklin believes it’s important to be open and vocal about her experience, so others know they are not alone.

"Relentless Spirit" by Missy Franklin.Penguin Random House

“I think it’s so important to bring awareness to mental health not only for athletes but just for anyone,” Franklin said. “The world that we live in, the comparison that goes on, the information that we’re presented with, it’s tough because it’s not always authentic.”

“If I can lend an authentic voice to say, ‘yes here are the wonderful parts of my life, I am so blessed and so grateful, but I’ve got really bad days too and here’s what those days look like’—and just letting people know that they’re not alone in their struggles is so important,” Franklin explained.

She reiterated the importance of never being afraid to ask for help — and to recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

“I finally got to a point where I had no other option but to ask for help, and then I realized it was the most courageous thing I could have ever done,” Franklin said. “Asking for help, getting professional help, seeking help from family, from my close support system, that’s what got me through it.”

Water safety tips for parents

Franklin and Vossoughian also discussed how drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 4 and the second leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 14.

“Get your kids in swim lessons,” Franklin encouraged, adding that it reduces the risk of drowning by 88 percent.

She also stressed the importance of being completely focused on your children whenever they are near or in the water. “Put your phones down,” she warned. “Even if they can swim, always make sure your focus is 100 percent on them whenever they’re in the water.

As for Franklin and Johnson’s future children, there are definitely plans for swimming lessons for safety, but the rest is all to be determined.

Regardless of what paths they choose to take, Franklin’s mantra will be the same. She will tell her future children, “I will support you in any dreams that you have. Let me know what I can do to help you,” she said.