The Swimmer’s Bookshelf: Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion

missy-book-cover

While I lived in Denver, I often overlapped with Missy Franklin in the pool—the Stars would be getting out as masters got in, or we shared pool time—so I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know her, and to see some of her training and races leading up to both London and Rio.

I think this proximity led me to follow her career more closely than other current swimmers. It also led me to speculate much more about her condition heading into Rio, because while I saw that Missy was as bubbly, hard working, and considerate of others* as ever, she never got back to the level of “crispness” she had in the pool prior to London. I was worried and concerned, especially due to the added mountain of returning-gold-medalist pressure she faced.

This familiarity, in combination with her Trials and Rio results, made me anticipate the release of her book, Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion, (Missy, D.A., and Dick Franklin with Daniel Paisner, 2016) more than most. I wasn’t sure how much time the book would cover, but I hoped to learn more—why she chose Cal, was/is she truly happy there, was McKeever a good coach choice, what exactly is wrong with her back, was swimming two years collegiate then going pro the best pathway, and more on her decision to move back to Colorado to train (although I totally understand taking a year off from classes to train for the Games.)

I won’t spoil any reveals from the book here, but I will say this—I got all of my answers, and Missy was very brave, honest, and humorous while sharing the “back story.” I wasn’t sure how it’d work to have three people “speaking” (Missy, her mother, her father), but this narration ploy was never distracting or confusing. Rather, as Missy noted, it’d would have been boring to spend a lot of time on race recaps because that’s already been covered to death by the media, but it was refreshing to hear her parents’ perspectives on the same events, and some of their own amusing adventures on the deck and beyond.

In conclusion, I’m relieved to know that Missy does in fact, love being a Cal student. My hope for her right now is that she can allow herself to back off from heavy training for a bit in favor of being a student, finding the fun in the water again, and developing a maintenance plan to keep her back healthy. Sure, I’d love to see her crush it in Tokyo—it’s certainly possible if she chooses (and I entirely understand if she feels she has “unfinished business” in the Olympic arena)—but hopefully that’s not a focus for her right now. And, if she chooses to retire before the next Games, I’m confident she’ll be fine. (Knowing what I do about her, I’ve always thought that out of the majority of Olympic-caliber swimmers, she’s the most well balanced and grounded with a promising non-swim career of her choice ahead). Certainly, she’s already accomplished so much, and so gracefully, to always be a wonderful ambassador and role model for the sport.

*On a blazing hot outdoor LCM training day (near 100 degrees, at altitude, right before noon), Missy saw a coach’s toddler knock over my water bottles, spilling all the water and electrolytes I had on me that day. Without saying a word, she got out of the pool and grabbed two ice-cold water bottles from their team cooler and placed them behind my block. Thanks, Missy! Also, a shout-out here for Stars coach Todd Schmitz who was unfailingly welcoming and kind—he’d consolidate his swimmers to offer us a lane or two whenever possible affording us precious extra pool time and always took an interest in our training and results.

The Swimmer’s Bookshelf: Relentless Spirit: The Unconventional Raising of a Champion

The Swimmer’s Bookshelf: Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program

shirleyShirley Babashoff got a raw deal. Probably one of the biggest in USA swimming history. Although she earned silvers in all of her individual events during the Montreal 1976 Games and set American records along the way, she was condemned for “only” winning one gold (4×100 free relay), then vilified for her outspokenness about the suspicious performance and manly appearance of the her East German competitors.

Labeled “Surly Shirley” and slammed as a “poor sport” by the media, it’s no wonder Babashoff avoided the press until just this year to publish Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program.

Making Waves begins with a fascinating look at Babashoff’s early swimming days and rise to international dominance, but the true focus of this as-told-to autobiography co-authored by Chris Epting is, of course, the events leading up to the ’76 Olympics and subsequent fallout.

For me, it was fascinating to read Babshoff’s account of the events that made such an impression on me as a child. The ’76 Games were the first on my radar as a young age grouper – it was a huge deal to watch on TV all the big names I read about in Swimming World compete at night, and to then discuss everything to the smallest detail the next morning with my teammates during practice. The proximity of these Games may also partly explain their impact on me – many of the older swimmers on my team made the short road trip from upstate New York to Montreal and saw the swimming live.

What troubles me the most from my adult perspective is the lack of support for Babashoff at the time. While I understand that evidence is needed to make a doping accusation stick, certainly someone else, anyone else, would’ve backed up Babashoff’s observations – no-one develops overnight into an international champion in this sport, and clearly the East German women did not look at all like their competitors. Hell, if the worst insult among my 9-10 female age group at the time was “she looks like an East German!” it wasn’t super-secret that the East Germans were up to something unnatural.

The contrast to today is particularly stark. Foremost, American swimmers are now groomed within an inch of their life to avoid any media backlash, but this has resulted in an endless stream of “I’ve worked really hard, my competitors are awesome and always bring out the best in me, I’ll just swim my best and see what happens” banal interviews. Second, doping suspicions are openly discussed, posted, etc., within in moments of an out-of-nowhere performance (e.g. Ireland’s Michelle Smith, China’s Ye Shewin).

It was also extremely worrisome to read about the abuse Babashoff suffered from both parents. Yet another case supporting the argument that for some, endless training as a means to stuff-down emotions, creates a seemingly “driven” and thus very successful swimmer. It’s enough to make me wonder if mandatory screening for warning signs of abuse and mental issues isn’t a bad idea to help swimmers as early as possible.

The other two lasting impressions from Making Waves, for me at least, are much less scandalous than doping and child abuse. I didn’t know Babashoff was an equally strong IMer at both the 200 and 400 distances. I’ve always associated her with just freestyle. Yet, she won the 400 IM at the ’76 Trials (she didn’t swim the event, however, because she wasn’t prepared – she was told to focus on free during the weeks leading up to the Games at training camp.) Finally I was struck by how loosey-goosey things were in the ‘70s swim world. Traveling from Houston to New Orleans by herself at age 14 to get her passport? Swimming for the men’s team in college while also training with the Nadadores? These sorts of things would never have happened in my era, even though it was only ten years later.

Making Waves is smart, compelling book that serves as Babshoff’s call to rectify the results of the women’s swim events from ’76, to both to honor those who competed drug-free, but more importantly, so everyone involved can heal and thus move on. After reading it, one does wonder why amendments still have not been made in this glaring case, especially when evidence of the East German doping (state-wide program!) has surfaced, and similar corrections have already occurred among other Olympics sports.

The Swimmer’s Bookshelf: Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program

How Can Anyone NOT Talk About Trials Right Now?

Trials are always the biggest, craziest meet every four years in the USA, and 2016 did not disappoint. Let’s get right to it!

The biggest, lasting impression for me this year? Loaded heats. And I’m not just talking about finals. Looking down the lanes prior to multiple semis had me shaking my head in awe at the lineup, in “anyone could truly win this” appreciation. Factor in what seemed like an unusually high amount of game-changing wild cards (Illness! Injury! Scratches! Muffed Starts! DQs & Reinstatements!), the Trials were exceptional swim-viewing this cycle.

My “swimmer on fire” awards go to: Dwyer, DiRado, [Leah] Smith, and Margalis. Each looked so confident, strong, solid. If they can keep the momentum rolling, I expect each to have their best-ever meet, at the Olympics.

It was exciting to see that my “year of the whippersnapper” prediction rang true—so many young and new-ish faces made the team. The whippersnappers will out-number the old guard in Rio, but I think it’s a win-win situation. The whippersnappers will receive guidance from experienced teammates while pumping up the old guard via their fresh-eyed excitement and energy.

Furthermore, many youngsters had an outstanding meet and I look forward to seeing them come up through the ranks: Ivy Martin, Sarah Henry, Bethany Galat, Townley Hass, Giles Smith, Ella Eastin, Cierra Runge, Clark Smith, Michael Taylor, Olivia Smogila, Cassidy Bayer, Maxime Rooney.

Unfortunately, the lows were still incredibly low. The scratches and not-what-they’re-capable-of swims due to illness and injury (what is with all of the hand and finger fractures this year?). All of the “swam my best but touched third” swims, especially those by hundredths, were as heartbreaking as ever to witness. My top two picks in this category? Leverenz in the 200 IM and Cullen Jones in the 50 free.

Then there were all of the “this is my last meet but I’m not exactly announcing my retirement” announcements. Here’s my long-ish list, made prior to the Trials, of old guards who probably would retire this year, either after Trials if they didn’t make it, or after the Games if they did: Phelps, Lochte, Grevers, Coughlin, Beisel, Clary, Pelton, DiRado, Leverenz, Ervin, Plummer, Hardy, Jones, Schmitt, Schneider, Weir, Larson, Lawrence, Adams, Kennedy.

Certainly, some of these names are not shockers (e.g. Phelps, Schmitt, Clary, and DiRado shared their post-Games plans with the public prior to Trials), but I was surprised to hear so many announcements during Trials, followed by prelims and semis scratches. Hands down, the toughest of this lot was Matt Grevers’ announcement so soon after touching third in the 100 back. Although he did his best, both per training and racing that day, it just wasn’t quite enough. Grevers’ career has been stellar, so I hope he finds a way to be at peace with his last Trials.

In between the highs and lows was a lot of really good swimming that’s only going to get better during training camp (clean up starts and turns, more pacing practice), and with rest. Among this group, the two most intriguing cases to consider, for me at least, are Franklin and Phelps. I remain puzzled by Missy’s performances over the past few years. Up until moving to Reno this spring, I had the privilege of seeing her train LCM most Tuesdays and Thursdays mornings. She was always her usual bubbly, good-humored self at practice, and I saw first-hand how much she put into sets. So, what’s in her way? Lingering back issues? Mentally spooked by the back injury? Too many professional time/energy demands? Too many transitions among homes, coaches, teams, and schooling? I really can’t predict how she’ll do in Rio—she may have an awesome training camp, work with a starts, turns, and confidence-whisperer and thus place well. Or she may not…Luckily, Franklin’s young enough to take a long break/finish her degree after Rio, then return to training mentally and physically refreshed to still crush it in Tokyo, if she chooses.

Michael Phelps also has me thinking. I think he has an excellent chance for gold in the 200 IM and fly (and much of that due to sheer grit). But his 100 fly has been sooooooo close in past Games I think he may run out of luck this time. Either way though, it’s been wonderful to see him so relaxed and happy. I’m glad he made the decision to come back for one more because you can tell this time he’s really just soaking it all in and sharing his joy with his new family. He seems the healthiest (physically and mentally) he’s ever been, and I love that he has solid plans for after the Games. All things considered, I hope he’s finally got his demons in the rear view mirror.

The USA swim Trials have earned the rep of being harder and more stressful on competitors to just make the team than actual Games competition (again, just look at the men’s 100 back. Grevers is out despite going faster than his last Trials while Plummer, who would have won a bronze in 2012 with his Trials time but sat at home, is in this time), but the 2016 results have me even more excited about the Games. I can’t wait to see how this team performs and places in Rio because I think everyone on the Team has much more to show!

How Can Anyone NOT Talk About Trials Right Now?