Missy Franklin – the darling of the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London who swept the women’s backstroke events, set an Olympic record, and came away with four gold medals and one silver – was once the fresh, new face in American swimming. Her athletic dominance as a 17-year-old was so undeniable some headlines that summer wondered if she would follow in the footsteps of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history.
But then came the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. Franklin seemed to fade as suddenly as she had appeared. She barely made the Olympic team, failed to qualify for the finals in the 200-meter freestyle, and placed seventh in the 200-meter backstroke – the event in which she still reigned as world-record holder.
Even Franklin admits she envisioned a much different ending to her book, Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion, which she began writing with her parents, D.A. and Dick Franklin, in the run-up to the 2016 Games. But the two surprising reveals in their memoir aren’t athletic feats nor failures. They are her unusual entrance into this world and her deep, unwavering faith in God that she came to completely on her own.
“My father was forty-nine when I was born, and my mother was forty-five, and I didn’t exactly come into this world in a conventional way, as I will explain soon enough,” Franklin writes early on.
After the 2012 Games, sports journalists sought to crack Franklin’s code – what made her such a well-adjusted athlete as notable for her effusive spirit as her mind-boggling speed to the wall?
For Franklin, the answer is obvious. Just thinking of her parents – sitting somewhere among the thousands of fans above the pool supporting her, loving her – was enough to calm her pre-race jitters.
So it seems fitting that the Franklins take turns narrating “Relentless Spirit,” alternating among Missy’s breezy, slang-heavy style; D.A.’s cautious, concerned motherly voice; and Dick’s straight-forward recounting, bursting with fatherly pride. It’s a pull-up-a-chair-to-the kitchen-table retelling of a remarkable family story.
But this close look at a family that doesn’t quite fit into traditional molds offers something more precious than Olympic gold in an age where the definition of “normal family” has grown far beyond one father, one mother, and clear blood relations.
The Franklins share a well-guarded family secret: Missy is the biological child of Dick and a surrogate the family chooses not to name.
“I guess you can say I’m a child of science,” Franklin writes. “Make no mistake, I’m also a child of my parents, through and through, but I was brought into this world with the help of a generous, compassionate surrogate and her family.”
Science may have helped to give Franklin her 6-foot-2 frame and a relentless drive in the pool. And timing may have allowed her older parents, already successful in their chosen fields, to be able to scale back and devote more attention to raising their child than most working parents.
But for Franklin, it doesn’t stop there. In her search for a high school with a good swimming program near their Colorado home, she also found God. Even though her family wasn’t religious, Franklin’s transformation was almost instantaneous when she arrived at a small, private Catholic high school to check out the pool.
“[T]he moment I walked into the front hall of the school I knew my search was over,” Franklin writes. “I felt God for the first time in my life, and I felt him in that instant.”
This memoir is more than a “come to Jesus” story. There are plenty of race recountings and an insider’s look into the Olympics and what it takes to get there in “Relentless Spirit” to satisfy sports readers. But the attraction to Franklin’s story truly lies in her spirit. How many world-class athletes could return to compete with a small girls high school swim team with as much enthusiasm as watching the Stars and Stripes being raised in their honor?
Franklin’s love of swimming is so pure that it is tempting to wonder if dropping out of the University of California, Berkeley, and leaving her collegiate team behind to turn pro before the 2016 Games was the right choice. The move may have dampened some of herspontaneity and joy in the pool.
But it’s her faith that points the way in her climb out of shattered Olympic dreams, and she turns her disappointment into a cornerstone of hope that her continuing purpose will be revealed. It’s a refreshing ending to a sports story offering so much more than fame, glory, and seconds on the clock. It’ll be fascinating to see how the spirit moves her next.