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Olympian Starts New Year, New Chapter Among Georgia Bulldogs

Missy Franklin, shown at the 2016 Summer Olympics, has relocated to the University of Georgia, where the five-time Olympic gold medalist is pursuing a psychology degree and mounting a comeback in the pool.
Credit Lee Jin-man / Associated Press file
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Missy Franklin has gone to the dogs, as in the Georgia Bulldogs.

The five-time Olympic gold medalist has relocated to Athens, Georgia, where she is pursuing a psychology degree and mounting a comeback in the pool.

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Starting the new year with a cross-country move from Northern California, where she was attending the University of California in Berkeley, was a huge decision for the 22-year-old from Colorado. Although happy training under Cal men’s coach Dave Durden, Franklin longed for the support her extended family in Georgia could provide and the chance to be around a women’s and men’s team run by one coach.

Finally, she decided, it was time to do what was best for her.

“I really struggled with that for a while because I looked at it from a selfish perspective,” she told The Associated Press by phone Thursday. “It really isn’t a selfish decision. I started thinking about the road I have ahead of me. I started looking at options, which is really big for me.”

That road includes the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Another chance on her sport’s biggest stage would be redemptive for Franklin. She had a puzzling clunker of a showing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games after barely making the U.S. team, a memory she’s eager to replace.

Franklin washed out in her individual events and earned gold for a morning preliminary swim on a relay. It was a stunning result for the bubbly teenager who won four golds and a bronze swimming in seven events in London.

A couple months before Rio, Franklin was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She kept it all to herself, though, and publicly smiled through the difficulties she endured at the games.

Even while mired in her woes, Franklin noticed a change in Michael Phelps. Her teammate was visibly different from the previous four years, smiling and happy and enjoying the sport.

She knew she wanted that for herself again.

Last year, Franklin underwent a pair of shoulder surgeries that kept her out of the pool. She missed the U.S. nationals and world championships in Hungary, leaving her plenty of time to reconsider her priorities and focus.

When she was considering colleges after her breakout four golds performance at the 2012 London Olympics, Georgia was runner-up to Cal.

Now, it’s her first choice.

The move has reunited Franklin with Bulldogs coach Jack Bauerle, who coached her when she made her first national team at age 13. He kept in touch even after Franklin settled on the West Coast.

“I’ve always adored him,” she said. “He cares about you.”

Franklin no longer competes in the collegiate ranks. Her fellow pros who train at Georgia include national team members Chase Kalisz, Melanie Margalis and Olivia Smoliga.

Besides extended family, Franklin is back in the same city as her Cal roommate who teaches in Atlanta. Her longtime boyfriend isn’t far away in Nashville.

“It already feels like home,” she said. “I felt so welcomed and so accepted.”

That’s important to Franklin, a self-described people pleaser who was always worried about others’ opinions and happiness, sometimes at her own expense.

“That was some hard lessons I had to learn at 16, 17. It’s impossible to please everyone and make everyone happy all the time,” she said. “To be able to sit here and shrug off those opinions that don’t matter took me a lot to learn.”

Franklin remembers walking into Durden’s office at Cal to tell him she was moving on, and she felt good about it.

“I can truly say I don’t know if I would still be swimming if it wasn’t for Dave Durden,” she said. “He’s one of those coaches that want the best for me.”

Franklin is wrapping up her first week of classes in Athens, still about 1 1/2 years from earning a degree after some of her credits from Cal didn’t transfer. She’s going full-on in the pool, too, working with Bauerle on building up her stamina and strength in pursuit of regaining her speed.

She’s hitting the weight room and feeling reassured that her shoulders are healed, although she sees a physical therapist a few times a week for maintenance.

She may swim some Pro Series meets in the coming months. Her main target is U.S. nationals in July in Southern California.

“I’m kind of coming back from the bottom,” she said. “I could feel pressure because people are expecting a comeback, but I don’t care. I don’t really care what kind of pressure people are putting on me because I can’t control that.”

Instead, Franklin is focused on why she wants to swim again.

“I want to get back to that 17-year-old who truly loved the sport,” she said. “It’s less about the hardware I bring back and more about getting back there and showing people the Missy that is so happy.”