Missy Franklin: Gold Medalist for Christ

Missy Franklin: Gold Medalist for Christ (Part 2)

John FarrellBy John Farrell22 Minutes

Missy Franklin is a five-time Olympic Gold medalist American swimmer. She previously held two word records: in the 200-meter backstroke and as a member of the U.S. 4×100-meter medley relay team. In December 2018, at just 23 years of age and filled with bittersweet emotions, Missy retired from the sport due in large part to a lingering shoulder injury and citing her desire to be able to someday hold her baby without experiencing pain. After attending church for the first time as a high school student, her faith quickly grew as she developed a personal relationship with the Lord. Since then she has remained devoted to her faith and it continues to play an integral part in her life today.

I had the opportunity to talk with Missy, who had recently returned from her “mini-moon” with her husband Hayes Johnson, about her personal walk with Christ, growing up, swimming, the Olympics, and her plans for the future.

JF: To switch gears a little bit, I’ve read that you talked to God before, during, and after practices and competitions. What were those conversations like and what did they do for you spiritually and competitively?

Missy: When it comes to competition, I definitely talked to Him before, during, and after every competition. Just about every single night. For me, I think the most important thing that my conversations with God did for me was give me perspective that yes this is really important for me. Yes, I care a lot about this meet. Yes, I’ve been working really hard for this. But at the end of the day, life is so much bigger than this swim meet. Life is so much bigger than this one race. Ultimately, I know that God cares so much more about who I am as a person and what I’m doing in this world to shine His love and His light. If I can do that through swimming, that’s amazing, but if I have a bad race that doesn’t make me a bad person. That doesn’t make me any less loved by God. It’s simply a platform that He’s given me that I now get to use to the best of my ability. Honestly, it really helped take a ton of pressure off because I knew that even though it meant a lot to me and even though it was a big deal to me, ultimately I’m loved by the Creator of the universe and there’s really nothing more important than that.

JF: Absolutely! How did you come to faith and what has your walk with Christ been like?

Missy: I didn’t really grow up going to church. We definitely did prayers in our house and we talked about God, but we weren’t a regular church-going family. So, I’d never been to church before I went to high school. My feeder school was a public high school in our district and because of high school swimming I wanted to look at different high schools. I wanted to be on a great high school swim team. I ended up falling in love with Regis Jesuit, which is an all-girls, private Jesuit high school in Colorado. It was quite the change going from having never been to church to going to a private Jesuit high school. But it was incredible. That was where I learned about God for the first time and where I learned that He loves me. I took my first theology classes and started reading the Bible for the first time. You go through a lot during that phase. I think one of the hardest things for me was always feeling so inadequate compared to everyone around me because so many of these girls had been going to private Catholic schools their whole lives, so they knew the Bible like the back of their hands. I’m sitting there having to go to the index to see where a particular book is in the Bible. There were just different things to work through, but ultimately it led me to God and it led me to faith. I had the most unbelievable experiences at that school. I think the best thing they ever did for me was teach me that my faith was my own and I have responsibility over it so that when I went to college I knew it was up to me. At Berkley we weren’t going to have prayers three times a day and mass every month. If I wanted to continue growing in my faith, it was up to me and that was a decision and an action that I needed to pursue. Having that self-esteem and that motivation coming out of high school was really amazing.

JF: I read that shortly after you retired you started studying Hinduism. What did you learn from that and how did that help you in your own faith?

Missy: So, it’s really funny. It was blown a little bit out of proportion. I’m a Religion major at Georgia. So I take classes in several different religions and that was just one of the classes I was taking. I didn’t just randomly pick up and turn to Hinduism. I became a Religion major here at Georgia and it just happened to be during the time of my retirement that I was taking my Hinduism class. I’ve also taken Islam. I’ve taken several different specific Christianity classes, Judaism classes, and New Testament classes, and I absolutely love it. For me, the most important thing about all of that was I didn’t necessarily choose religion to strengthen my own faith. I knew no matter what that was going to be an aspect of it, but my main goal was so that I could better understand other peoples’ faiths because I, first and foremost as a Christian, feel called to love other people. To fight for them. To pursue them. It really hurts my heart to see so much of the conflict that we have in our world today and how so much of it revolves around religion and different views. Even within the same religion — the arguments that are happening over what’s right and what’s wrong. I just wanted as much knowledge as I possibly could get so I have more of an understanding of people who have different religions, ideas, and beliefs than I did. Where they were coming from? Where they learned them? It’s been absolutely incredible. Buddhism is such a beautiful religion, such a beautiful faith. I loved learning about that and the different perspectives it has given me. Ultimately, going through all of this, it has given me such a deep respect and understanding for beliefs that are different than my own.

JF: Do you plan to do anything further with your Religion degree?

Missy: I essentially have a full-time career right now. Graduating from college has always been something that is very important to me. I’m really just graduating because it’s something that matters. Thankfully, swimming has given me so much and it’s also now given me a full-time career. I’m still working with some of the companies I was with when I was still competing. I’m working with brand-new companies that I haven’t worked with before. I get to do public speaking, appearances, and philanthropic work, which I love so much. I have no intention to stop that anytime soon. I find so much fulfillment and for me it’s one of the best ways to continue using my platform for good. Getting my degree has been such a huge personal goal of mine and it’s always been really important to me to graduate from college and I wanted to study something I was passionate about while doing it.

JF: That’s great! Is there a book in the Bible or a particular verse you would consider your favorite?

Missy: Oh yeah. I would say Matthew 5:16:

‘In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.’

You’ve heard me talk about it before, but I think this idea of shining God’s light and love to other people. I just think that’s a beautiful image and that for me can be some of the smallest acts of service. I think it’s so important for people to realize that these acts of service and shining God’s light don’t have to be these huge, elaborate intensive things. They can be things like smiling at someone who looks like they’re having a hard day. It can be stopping and actually having a conversation with the cashier that’s checking you out at the grocery store. Just being present with people and looking at everyone in the way that you would imagine God looking at them with how much He loves them, admires them, adores them, and respects them. Treating them like they deserve and like they’re loved as a child of God. That’s been a backbone of how I live my life and this idea of being kind to people. That’s always resonated so strongly with me.

JF: Is there a person in the Bible you feel you most associate with?

Missy: I would hate to say ‘associate,’ because I’m nowhere near their status, but I think my two favorite people in the Bible are Ruth and Esther. I think their stories are so full of faith and loyalty. Every single time I read their stories, I’m just in awe at the type of women they were and the type of power they had when they really didn’t have any. Yet they found so much power and strength in their faith and in their trust that God would take care of them. Whenever I’m going through a hard time or struggles or I’m confused at what God is doing in my life or how he’s working, I consistently go back to Esther and Ruth and remind myself that this is the kind of faith that God is calling me to right now. It’s a blind faith of ‘no, I don’t know what I’m doing and I may not understand it, but I trust that it is going to be something beautiful in the end.’

JF: Before you competed in your first Olympics you had already broken two world records. What went through your head when you realized what you had done?

Missy: When you break a world record it shows on the scoreboard. It will say right next to your name and time that it’s a world record. So whenever you break one you know instantaneously. My first one was the 200 meter backstroke and it was so surreal. I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised in my entire life. I was 16 and I was exhausted. We were on the second leg of a meet. We had already swam two days and I was so tired. I was literally telling myself before the race to just finish it. Seriously, just finish the race. Just do your best and that’s all you need to do. So when I looked up and saw a world record I just about fainted in the pool. It’s such a surreal feeling. It’s really hard to put into words what it’s like coming to the realization that no one has ever been faster than what you just did. It’s such a crazy achievement that I don’t know if it ever fully sinks in, but it’s incredible. There’s so much pride and honor that comes with an achievement like that. It’s something you never forget.

JF: Are they still records?

Missy: No, they are not. Actually, they were broken this past summer. It was amazing. Regan Smith, a young, up-and-coming swimmer, actually broke my 200 backstroke world record from London. That had been standing for seven years and she crushed it. I went 2:04.06, she went 2:03.35. No one had ever been a 2:03 before. She also broke the world record in the 100 backstroke and went a 0:57, which has never been done before. They were truly two of the most unbelievable swims I have ever seen in my entire life. She is also just the sweetest, most amazing human being. I could not have been more thrilled or honored that my record fell to her.

JF: What was it like being 13 at the 2008 Olympic Trials and being around all those older, more experienced swimmers? It had to be a little intimidating.

Missy: 2008 was unbelievable. I’m 13 years old and at this arena where I’m literally in the same warm-up and warm-down pool as swimmers that I had on posters on my wall in my bedroom. I’m next to Natalie Coughlin, Michael Phelps, and Ryan Lochte. It was so surreal for me to even be at the same meet as them, let alone competing. It was just incredible. I told myself going into it that I just wanted to learn as much as possible. I think you can learn so much from other people just by observing their behavior, their attitude, and how they act. Just watching these incredible athletes and these seasoned professionals, the way they handled themselves, the way they warmed up, warmed down, what they ate, that was more impactful than anything else.

JF: What was it like competing for the national team?

Missy: It was amazing! It was such a dream come true. Representing the United States and swimming with the flag on your cap is one of the most humbling experiences because you know this is so much bigger than you and you’re representing something that is so much bigger than yourself. Going out there you never feel like you’re alone. You have an entire team and an entire country behind your lane every time you’re swimming. Your own success isn’t just yours; it’s everyone’s and just sharing that is something that is so truly special.

JF: You mention in your retirement letter that you still have dreams, goals, aspirations, and intentions, what are those and what does the future hold for you?

Missy: I think first and foremost is to be a mom, and to be a wife. I’ve always known that those are two things that God has told me to be very strongly. I don’t think there will ever be any greater achievement than being the best wife I can to my husband and the best mother I can to our children. I’m looking forward to that day and to creating our family together and also continuing to make as big of an impact as I possibly can. Now I have the time and energy that I didn’t when I was still competing to be involved in the philanthropic efforts that I really want to be in and to essentially keep making the world as much of a better place as I can.

JF: What advice do you have for kids today who want to make it to the Olympics in swimming or the sport of their choice?

Missy: I would say you would have to love it no matter what. You have to love it and you have to believe in yourself to get there. If it is your goal to reach the Olympics, know in your heart that no one can do that for you. Your coach cannot do that for you, your parents cannot do that for you, your teammates cannot do that for you. If that is something you want to do, you need to trust and believe that that is within yourself and take responsibility over that. You need to back that up with the actions required and show up every single day and give your best and know that it really is up to you.

JF: Thank you so much Missy for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me. Again, congratulations on your wedding!

Learn more about Missy Franklin at MissyFranklin.com