Rio turns into an Olympic-sized disappointment for Franklin
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Dance parties. Dark chocolate. Calls to mom.
All are helping Missy Franklin cope with an Olympics gone wrong.
A huge star at the London Games four years ago, Franklin was one of the biggest U.S. disappointments in Rio de Janeiro - an inexplicable fall she's at a loss to explain.
''I really wish I could tell you,'' Franklin said Thursday, not long before her final race. ''In my mind, I made the hardest sacrifices I've ever had to make this year. I've poured myself into this every single day for the whole year and the three years leading up to that. For whatever reason, it's just not happening at this meet.''
Franklin's last event epitomized her struggles.
In the 200-meter backstroke, an event she won at London, Franklin finished next-to-last in her semifinal heat with the 14th-ranked time overall, 2 minutes, 9.74 seconds. That was nearly 3 seconds slower than her semifinal time at the 2012 Games - and more than 5 1/2 seconds off her gold medal-winning performance.
''This has been by far the hardest week of my entire life,'' Franklin said, her voice breaking and tears in her eyes. ''There's definitely a bit of relief that it is over.''
As a high school senior-to-be, Franklin competed in a staggering seven events in 2012, winning four gold medals and a bronze. She became only the second American woman, after Amy Van Dyken, to capture four golds at a single Olympics.
But, following two years swimming collegiately at California and then turning pro last summer, Franklin hasn't been able to recapture the form that made her one of the most-hyped - and heavily sponsored - U.S. athletes heading into the Rio Olympics.
She struggled at the U.S. trials, qualifying for the team in only two individual events, both with runner-up finishes.
In Rio, she didn't make the final of either event, also getting knocked out in the semifinals of the 200 freestyle. Given her form, the coaches only picked her to swim the preliminary of the 4x200 free relay, a decision that would have seemed unfathomable just a few months ago but didn't meet with any protest from Franklin.
''I was absolutely fine with it,'' Franklin said. ''They 100 percent made the right decision.''
The 21-year-old still earned a gold medal - the fifth of her career - when a Katie Ledecky-led squad swept to victory in the relay final.
That did little to ease the sting for Franklin.
She's ready to go home to Colorado.
''Right now, my future is not warming down and eating a Popsicle tonight,'' she said, recapturing her omnipresent smile. ''That's just about all I'm thinking about. It's been a really hard year for me. It's going to take some time for me to recover from it and that's what I plan on doing. Spending some quality time with family and just getting back on my feet and making sure that I keep a smile on my face the whole time.''
To her credit, Franklin showed that her bubbly, accommodating personality was no facade.
She never skipped out on a session with reporters in the mixed zone, even when she knew what the questions would be. Instead of avoiding the media, she was always gracious and forthcoming.
Franklin has coped with her struggles by leaning heavily on her religious faith.
''My faith in God is really getting me through,'' she said. ''I know that he's going to make something beautiful out of this, he's going to transform me and my life into doing something from all of this. I have no clue what that is. I wish I could ask him what he's going to do.''
Her teammates did all they could to help.
''I just throw a couple of random dance parties. I take some really, really horrendous Snapchats of her,'' Cierra Runge said. ''Whatever I can do to make her laugh.''
Those Dove chocolate candies with the inspirational messages on the wrapper help, too.
One of the verses really stuck with Franklin.
''Every day is an opportunity to change things for the better,'' she recounted. ''That was a good reminder that regardless of how things have been going, how I've been feeling, every day is a new opportunity.''
And, of course, she can always turn to her family.
''You're never too old to call your mom and cry and ask her for advice,'' Franklin said. ''It's going to be OK. I'm loved. I'm supported. When you put things in perspective, if a disappointing meet is the worst thing that happens in my life, then I have a pretty damn good life.''
Franklin will return to Cal in the fall to resume her studies, but she made clear that her swimming career isn't over.
''It doesn't mean I'm anywhere close to being done with this sport,'' she said. ''I've got so much left to give to this sport, to my fans, to the people who've been supporting me.''
If there's a bright side, Franklin has learned just how much she's really loved.
''Yeah, it's a disappointment. But the support I've received has shown me so much more than I ever could've expected,'' she said. ''You're so much more than the number of medals you have, you're so much more than the time you spend in the pool, your value goes so beyond all of that. I don't think I ever would've come to that realization without going through something like this.''
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .