At the 2012 Olympics in London, Missy Franklin—a high-school junior at the time—won five medals and our hearts. Her coaches and competitors knew she would be the swimmer to beat in Rio. But she came up short, leaving many fans disappointed and confused. Yet her supposed “failure” is actually one the most relatable stories from the Olympic Games.
On paper, Franklin tanked. She missed the finals in both of her individual events (finishing last and second-to-last in her semifinal heats). She isn’t coming home empty-handed—the 4-by-200 meter freestyle relay team she was a part of went on to win gold. Still, this was nowhere near the Olympics Franklin dreamed of.
Franklin’s story hits close to home for me.My life revolved around swimming from seven to 18 years old. At the end of my senior year, I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to compete in the annual Sunkissed Invitational Championship. I wasn’t swimming in college, so this was my last big meet.
At the same invitational the previous year, I killed it. I left with personal bests in every event I swam in. It only pushed me to train harder as a senior. This time around, my swimming was anything but spectacular. The water couldn’t hide my tears at the end of each race. I was upset with myself and my performance.
I’ll never know how it feels to swim with the world watching. I’ll never understand the crazy pressure Franklin faced at the Olympics. But every swimmer has had that meet—the one where you flop and can’t figure out why.
This feeling extends way beyond swimming. Whether you ran a slower-than-usual 5K after weeks of training, struggled to lose weight despite huge changes to your diet and exercise, or missed your dream promotion even after pulling long hours, there are times when all your hard work doesn’t pay off—and it sucks.
These times are just as important as the ones where we do succeed. Simone Biles’s story is crazy inspiring, but so is Franklin’s. She handled defeat with the same grace that she handled victory in London, and she didn’t hide from the media. “I wish I had an excuse, but I don’t, and I’m not going to make up one,” Franklin told The Washington Post. “The truth is I worked as hard as I possibly could. I did everything I could think of doing, and for some reason I fell more short than I ever have before.”
In the end, the moments we remember from Rio are the superhuman feats, but Franklin’s story is one of the most human from the 2016 Games.