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Commentary & Opinion

Keith Strudler- The Cost Of Disappointment

By any estimation, this was a disappointing Olympics for American swimmer Missy Franklin. It could have been worse, I suppose. She wasn’t held up at gunpoint, like some of her male teammates. But for someone who four years ago was being called the female Michael Phelps, she’s not likely to confuse London with Rio. In London, Franklin won four golds at age 17, and a bunch more the next year at the World Championships. And, as we all know by now, Franklin passed on the big bucks in endorsement revenue that would have come with that so she could stay amateur and swim for a college team. Which she did – two years for the Cal Bears, where she won three NCAA Division I individual titles in 2015.

But the past year, since Franklin turned professional – which simply means she can actually get paid for endorsements and cannot swim for Cal, it’s been a series of injuries and disappointments, culminating in this Olympic Games, where Franklin failed to qualify for the finals in each of her two individual events. She did win one gold for swimming in the prelims on a relay, but wasn’t even chosen by the US to swim in the finals for that event. It’s hard to say what this will cost her financially, but it’s been estimated her two years swimming for Cal cost Missy Franklin around $5 million. Even with today’s rising college tuition, five million seems a little steep.

Franklin handled it with class, certainly more than most of us would. She talked about supporting her American teammates and never once threw a fit, never publicly at least – which would have been completely understandable, by the way. Most of us break down when we spill our coffee. So it seems completely in bounds for someone to lose their cool when they’re life plan falls apart on global television. For that, Franklin has earned accolades, even if it’s hard to turn that into currency.

Franklin isn’t the only American athlete whose Rio trip was disappointing. US Gymnast Gabby Douglas wasn’t the same athletes she was last go around, when she won the gold medal in the all-around competition. This year, she didn’t make the finals for that event, squeezed out by two American teammates, including this year’s Olympic darling Simone Biles. Unlike Franklin, Douglas was chastised – unfairly, I might add – for appearing even the least bit upset for not achieving another life goal. But Douglas was able to monetize her last Olympics, Wheaties box and all. The US Women’s soccer team didn’t reach its goal either, failing to medal for first time in Olympic history, albeit a relatively short one for the women’s sport. This can go on and on for athletes who came with high Olympic expectations and will go home with nothing more than memories and a t-shirt. It’s not just Americans, but athletes across the globe, the vast majority for whom this moment was the singular pinnacle of their athletic lives – if not their entire lives. And most of these are people we’ve never heard of in sports we never watch – outside of every fourth summer. And unless they decorate themselves in gold, that will remain the same. The same isn’t true for, say, professional basketball or football players. When they lose a big game, like the World Series, their professional worlds don’t collapse. The checks keep coming, and training camp is virtually around the corner, especially given today’s professional sports landscape, where offseason feels more like a long weekend. For example, Steph Curry lost the NBA title this year in a series they basically had wrapped up, and it felt like the next day they were talking about next season, Kevin Durant and all. The same happened to LeBron James the year before, and it worked out just fine.

That said, we know swimming is never going to be football. Or even soccer. Which means for athletes like Missy Franklin, it’s always going to be an all or nothing world, where one week – or more specifically, around one minute – might determine the course of your future, at least financially speaking. That doesn’t mean Franklin made the wrong decision by turning down the money to be an NCAA swimmer – and we’ll leave the insanity of those policies aside. But it should at least be a cautionary tale for anyone else considering the same decision, even though I’d hardly expect many, or any, to follow in Franklin’s wake.

It should also be a lesson for us as well, all of us who are way too quick to critique athletes for melting down when the Olympic moment doesn’t measure up. It’s certainly noble for athletes to have Franklin’s grace in defeat. But it’s also understandable to throw a tantrum like a three-year-old, which is what I would do. I sometimes do that when my computer crashes at work. It’s okay to be disappointed, just like it’s okay to be exuberant in victory. Missy Franklin, in her two Olympics, has been both.

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