Charles Hartley, a free-lance writer based in New Jersey, has written more than a thousand published sports articles. He earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Journalism. In addition, he was awarded his Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University where he majored in English and Communications.
I went to my mother, hugged her, and started to cry. It was my graduation day from college. My three brothers, two sisters, and father watched this embrace on the campus quadrangle on a bright sunny morning in May. I don’t recall ever crying in my mother’s arms until that day.
I needed someone to hug. Mom was the obvious choice as she, and many other mothers, so often are. With the ceremony having ended a few minutes earlier, on my mind was this question “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
At 22 years old, I had plenty of reasons to be less than optimistic, uncertain, and bereft of confidence. College courses had taxed me mentally to the point of despondency. I had aimed high and the results were below that.
Graduating was an experience worth crying about because I was sad and worried and pretty much lost. It got worse.
Two weeks later I took a two week round-trip drive from the Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles with no particular idea of what to do next. A few months later, still searching for I don’t know what, I moved away from home to Sarasota, Florida. It was stimulating lying on the beach reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” and “Alice in Wonderland.” But I learned that no matter how many books I read, no matter the depth of my literary knowledge, regardless of how nicely tanned my skin got, it was not possible to stop thinking about what profession to pursue.
In that Florida town I had a job for a while that I didn’t really want as a mortgage loan processor. Within a few months the boss suggested I might want to leave. So I left.
How my life intersects with yours
This week on TV I saw you, twenty-one-year-old Missy Franklin, remaining in the pool in lane 7 with your hands close together on the pool deck. With your head wrapped in a black cap and US flag on the side, you leaned your head against them. Your face wasn’t visible.
You had just finished last in your heat in the 200 meter backstroke at the 2016 Olympics – nearly six seconds slower than your world record time at the 2012 Olympics that won you a Gold Medal.
You would not be advancing to the finals. No medal opportunity. Your American teammate who finished second, Maya Dirado, put her left hand on your right ear and right hand on your left ear. It was the way a mother does to give her child a pep talk and make them believe they are special and can bounce back, often on their way out the door to go to elementary school. She was being a consoling friend.
Every other time I have seen you, Missy, you have been smiling. But this time you were crying. You looked so sad.
You won four Golds and a total of five in the London Olympics. In this week’s Rio Olympics, you won only one in a team relay.
Your 2016 Olympics were over because of your backstroke performance.
Dirado would go on to overachieve in the final and win the Gold Medal, her fourth of the games. Instead of you being the female star of the American team, Dirado ascended to that height along with Katie Ledecky who won four Gold Medals. Their Olympic experiences sharply contrast with yours in terms of wins, glory and appearances on the NBC Today show with Medals around their necks. They rolled in the hardware and you didn’t. You are no longer America’s best female swimmer and everybody who follows the sport, either closely or casually, knows it.
The end of the Olympic Games are like the end of college. You work so much to get through the experience. You spend countless hours preparing, thinking, toiling. Then everything stops suddenly.
It’s time to make a life change. It is forced upon you. Your life situation will never be the same. People will move on.
You have to move on from this painful experience, Missy, just as I did from mine in college and others do, inevitably, in their lives. I had to face my fears, admit my insecurities, accept that I had not achieved all I had wanted to, admit I felt embarrassed by my performance, and make big decisions about what to do next.
On your Facebook page after your final race you indicate that you will be back stronger than ever before…and peace is knowing that I did everything I possibly could have done.
Preparing so much and not achieving what you had set out to do can be excruciating.
I wanted to get a 4.0 grade point average in college. It didn’t happen. I cried on graduation day. Tears flowed because I didn’t attain my goals. I lacked confidence to achieve them in the future – whatever they were going to be.
You hoped to win Gold Medals at the 2016 Olympics. It didn’t happen. You cried. We all understand. Life can be painful.
It would be understandable if this has shaken your confidence that you can again become a Gold Medal level. You may even be re-thinking whether you want to keep swimming.
I hope if you pursue the next Olympics it’s because you want to rather than you feel you have to prove to everybody else you can win individual Gold Medals again. If you want to stop, and that’s what your heart is really telling her, then stop.
Seeing you cry hurts. It’s tough to see other people achieve the pinnacle of their sport and then fall from that height in a few short years.
We feel your pain, Missy. We have all lost. We have all aimed for something, worked at it endlessly, and misfired. We all know what it’s like to wonder whether we should keep pursuing a goal or abandon it and try something else; and if we choose the latter we often worry that we will think of ourselves as quitters and not tough enough.
We, like you, have to make tough choices about what to do next, as you will have to over the next several months and years. Often it’s as tough deciding what to do as deciding what not to do.
Your Olympic story, from star in 2012 to less than that in 2016, is a universal one. We go up and we fall down over and over throughout life.
Realize you are not alone. We are rooting for you to overcome this experience and turn it into a positive.
In grade school and high school, I excelled in sports. I was a star. For most of my adult life I have not been. Being at the top can make the fall much more painful when you hit bottom. When you’re just another person, not a superstar, people don’t pay as much attention to you. It can be hard to not be the center of attention.
I’ve been to both places, the zenith and the nadir. Now I see you going through, perhaps, a similar scenario. I don’t know you, and you haven’t asked for my advice, but I think it’s true of most people that the key is to follow your heart and not worry about what everybody else thinks.
Many people thought I was being impractical when I decided I wanted to be a writer. They questioned whether I had the talent. I heard what they said, but listened to my heart. It said “be a writer.” Following this instinct has given me a fulfilling professional career, one I know was the right one for me.
This is your life and your decision. You were on top of the world of swimming, and that’s an awesome achievement. And you can be again; or pursue whatever you choose. We will respect you and love you no matter what you decide.
It may take longer and be more difficult than your ascent to the top of the swimming world was in 2012. But when you reach the mountaintop again – as I expect you will — it will be more fulfilling than ever.
This article is courtesy of and written by Charles Hartley.