By Julian Linden
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Like any University student taking a year off from study, Missy Franklin wanted to see the world, broadening her horizons in new and exotic locations.
She's managed to do that, but not quite the same way as most other students on sabbatical. There's no trekking with backpacks or sleeping in youth hostels for this American.
As one of the world's best swimmers, everything Franklin is doing right now is part of an intricate plan to prepare herself for next year's Rio Olympics.
That's the sole reason she decided to take a break from her studies at Berkeley College in California and return to her roots in Colorado.
And that's also why she's spent parts of the last few months traveling to eastern Europe and Asia, not to fill her passport with stamps, but to toughen herself up for Rio.
Just 17 at the time, Franklin was one of the stars of the 2012 London Olympics, winning four gold medals and millions of hearts with her innocent enthusiasm.
Riding the crest of wave, she won six gold medals at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, then waved goodbye to her home and swim squad in Colorado to take up a scholarship at Berkeley.
Determined to experience college life to the fullest, Franklin even gave up the chance to turn professional so she could compete for Berkeley and train under Teri McKeever, one of America's top coaches.
Franklin quickly fell in love with college life but not everything has gone swimmingly. She has been struggling with a painful back injury, hampering her performances in the pool.
At this year's world championships in Russia, she won two gold medals in relay, but none in the individual backstroke events she had monopolized in previous years.
There were some extenuating circumstances but everything led her to the realization that she needed to make some big changes if she wanted to get back to the top in Rio.
So, at age 20, Franklin decided to turn professional, enabling her to accept prize money and endorsements, and headed straight back to Colorado, under the tutelage of her childhood coach Todd Schmitz.
She plans to go back to college but this next year is all about getting ready for the Olympics.
"It was so hard because my life is out in Cal now," Franklin told Reuters in a candid interview during the Singapore leg of swimming's World Cup series.
"My family's out there and Teri's been like a second mom to me so it was the hardest decision I've ever had to make, and the biggest sacrifice I've ever had to make.
"It's a huge change to me but I've been able to dedicate myself 100 per cent to my training now, which has been really, really nice."
Despite struggling with back problems and suffering a rare defeat at the world championships, Franklin believes she is still a better swimmer and person for the time she spent at college.
And she is confident she can get back to her best, though she knows the clock is ticking faster than ever, with the Games starting in less than 10 months.
"It's crazy to think how much I've changed since London and how quickly those years have gone by. The fact that it's next summer is just mind-blowing to me," she said.
Schmitz has coached Franklin since she was seven and was never really sure whether she would come back and train under him. When she did, he immediately saw the changes in her and realized he would have to train her differently to get her back on track.
"I always hoped she would come back but obviously that was her decision," Schmitz told Reuters.
"She's definitely physically, mentally and emotionally different but that's one of the things that I made sure she understood, that I understood she was not coming back as a 17-year-old girl, she's coming back as a 20-year-old woman and because of that it's got to be more of a partnership versus a coach and an athlete.
"When they're growing up, a coach says 'do this', and they just do it, now it's got to be more of a collaborative effort and partnership."
The early signs are encouraging. Franklin is no longer having any problems with her back and is enjoying the benefits of training back in the Colorado mountains, at an altitude a mile above sea-level.
And the pair agreed to have a bit of fun as well, traveling to East Asia for the World Cup, where she competed in Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.
"Rio's going to be a challenge, so that's why we decided to do a trip like this, doing three or four countries in a two-week span," Schmitz said.
"She got some great race experience, she learned how to race when she's tired, when she's sleeping in a new bed every two nights, and all of those things are factors when you go to Olympics and Olympic trials.
"So, this really was a kind of a dress rehearsal for all those things, and now we'll go back home and work even harder."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)