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Olympian Missy Franklin speaks at an event for the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center

Community Mental Health

Missy Franklin Shares Mental Health Struggles At Johnson Depression Center Luncheon

The Colorado-bred Olympian talked about her journey after being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder.

Author Greg Glasgow | Publish Date October 29, 2021

When it comes to mental health, it is essential to be vulnerable, to speak out about your struggles, and to practice self-care.

That was the message from Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin, who spoke Thursday at a virtual luncheon hosted by the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center.

Franklin, a five-time Olympic gold medalist who grew up in Colorado, spoke frankly about her mental health struggles — most notably being diagnosed with depression, insomnia, anxiety, and an eating disorder shortly before competing in the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“At this point, what do I do?” she said, describing the way she felt in 2016. “I'm so close to trials, where people are expecting for me to make the team, no problem, and then go on to have the best eight days of competition in my life. And I’ve never been lower. I’ve never been further from myself as a person or as an athlete. And I have weeks to turn it around. Where do I start?”

A tale of two Olympics

Franklin began working with a sports psychologist, but even with the professional help she didn’t qualify for a single final at the Rio Games. It was a sharp contrast from her 2012 Olympic debut in London, where she won four gold medals and one bronze medal. Her mood at those Games, she said, was more carefree.

“My coach told me, ‘All you have to do is go out there and have fun,’ and that was how I approached my sport,” Franklin recalled of her Olympic experience in London. “Every time I got behind the block, right before I raced, I would put a massive smile on my face to remind myself that why I do this is because I love it. Because it brings me joy, because I love pushing myself and seeing what I’m capable of.

“I remember coming back from London, and my whole life had changed,” she continued. “I went into those Olympics naive in a good way. I was so focused on having fun, and no one knew who I was, no one cared, there were no expectations. I just went out to see what I was capable of doing.”

Under pressure with mounting expectations

After returning from London, Franklin swam for two years for the University of California-Berkeley before returning to Colorado to train for the 2016 Games, which is when she started feeling the pressure of being an elite athlete.

“I had set the bar pretty high for myself in 2012, and I started to feel something I'd really never felt before. And that was the pressure and the external expectations of the people and the world around me,” she said. “I’d really ever only focused on what I wanted to achieve, what were my expectations for myself. All of a sudden those got really quiet, and everyone else’s got really, really loud.”

It didn’t help that she was spending every day, by herself, training — lifting weights, swimming, sticking to a limited diet and strict sleep schedule. As the Rio games neared, Franklin said she began to dread practices and competition. She lost her sense of self. As an athlete, she felt pressure to be strong, and she thought others would see her asking for help as a sign of weakness. Finally, though, she could no longer take the agony.

“I sat my coaches down, and I said, ‘Something is very, very, very wrong. I don't know exactly what it is; I just know that something is wrong.’” Franklin recalled. “In that moment of finally saying it out loud, that alone just felt like the weight of the world had fallen off my shoulders. I realized I had never felt more courageous in my life than I did in that moment — when I finally stood up for myself.”

The journey begins

The sports psychologist helped Franklin through her challenging time in Rio, but it was after those Games that Franklin’s mental health journey really began. She started working full-time with a therapist, and two years after the Rio Games, she announced her retirement from swimming. That decision came with its own set of problems, she said, as her identity had become so wrapped up in her sport.

“I had no idea where to go. I had no idea what Missy Franklin had to offer the world other than going a 2:04:06 in a 200 backstroke. What do I have to give? What is my worth? What do I had to offer?” she said. “I started to find my way back to that balance aspect that was so important to me.”

Today, Franklin said, she is not just Missy the swimmer, but also Missy the daughter, Missy the wife, and as of August, Missy the mom to her first daughter, Sarah. She said she has learned so much about mental health, including the fact that healing is not linear, and maintaining balance can be a constant struggle.

“Every time we go through something, every time we experience hardship or challenge or loss, we're getting tools,” she said. “Tools in our tool belt that whenever something comes up, we have a little more confidence we can draw on.”

The importance of speaking up

Now, as a mental health advocate, Franklin said, she knows it’s important for her to be vulnerable and to share her story so that others who are struggling know they aren’t alone. She said she admired fellow Olympians Michael Phelps and Simone Biles for speaking out about their mental health struggles.

“I couldn’t believe watching Simone Biles this summer, watching her choose herself and her mental health over the Olympics and other people’s expectations,” Franklin says. “I was honestly envious, because I wish that I had been courageous enough to make a decision like that back in 2016.

“But here’s the catch,” she continued. “You don’t need to be Michael Phelps or Simone Biles to talk about your mental health journey. You don’t need to have a million followers on social media. Because I guarantee you that when you speak, at least one person is listening. And if you make a difference to that one person, imagine the impact that that has. You’ve changed the life of someone else, you've met someone else where they are. So never ever be afraid to speak up, even when you think that no one is listening, because I promise that someone always is.”

Inspirational words

Neill Epperson, MD, professor of psychiatry at the CU School of Medicine and executive director of the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center, called Franklin’s address “truly inspirational.”

“Missy captivated the audience with her candor, wisdom, and humor,” Epperson said. “I’m sure Missy will continue to have tremendous impact as she fights stigma related to mental illness with the gusto she showed as a multi-gold-medal Olympic athlete.”

Watch a video of Franklin’s speech on the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center website.