The most decorated Olympian in all history shows that it’s helping others who struggle with mental health challenges that’s better than any gold.
By Lori Hile
“Michael Phelps is human.”
A Barcelona newspaper blasted this headline during the 2003 World Championships after the swimmer placed second in a race he was expected to win. No greater insult could be hurled at an Olympic-caliber athlete. After all, the original Olympians were gods, not mere mortals, capable of weakness.
Motivated by the loss, Phelps reclaimed victory at the Athens Olympic games the following year, where he racked up an astounding eight medals—six of them gold. By the time he retired after the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phelps was the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 28 medals, 23 of them gold.
Yet, despite his seemingly superhuman feats, Phelps was plagued throughout the majority of his career with crippling anxiety and depression.
On a Tuesday morning over breakfast, Phelps opens up to a Chicago audience at the Kennedy Forum for Mental Health about his Olympic journey and his battles with mental health challenges.
“I can honestly say after every Olympics, I think I fell into a major depression,” the 32-year-old Phelps reveals to the breakfast guests. He has since learned to find strength in vulnerability and says that helping others who share the same struggles is “light years better” than ever winning an Olympic gold medal.
Beneath the surface
When comparing his later struggles with depression, the 32-year-old record-holder describes his path to becoming an Olympian as “pretty easy.” “I mean, it’s hard work, dedication, not giving up.”
Still, his childhood was fraught with challenges. His out-sized ears and ADHD—which required being called away from the classroom daily to take his medication—made Phelps a frequent target for bullying, both by other kids and by a teacher, who told him he would never amount to anything.
Swimming seemed to help. It provided an outlet for his excess energy, allowing him feel calmer in and out of the pool. And if he was upset, he jokes, “I could always scream under the water!” His talent in the pool gave him confidence and a chance to prove his doubters wrong, something that’s given him an espresso-like jolt of motivation throughout his entire career.
But his success in the pool came with a price. After Phelps’s parents’ divorce when he was nine, he lived with his mother. As swimming took up more and more of his time, he saw less and less of his police officer father, whose erratic work hours sometimes kept him away from important competitions. Even with his mother’s unwavering support, his father’s absence made Phelps feel abandoned.
He shrugs off the little “sacrifices” he made, like missing traditional high school rites of passage, because “I had bigger goals and dreams I wanted to accomplish.” But there were other sacrifices that profoundly affected his sense of self. As his career escalated, Phelps became a passive participant in his own life, with his agent and his long-time coach planning every aspect of his schedule.
“I was so regimented,” he tells esperanza magazine in an interview after the breakfast. “Somebody would say ‘Jump,’ and I would say, ‘How high?’” He didn’t have a chance to think for himself, nor did his intense training and competition schedule allow him time to develop interests outside of swimming.
“I didn’t look at myself as a normal human being; I looked at myself as this kid that was really good at swimming,” he acknowledges. Without knowing himself, it was hard to love himself. “For so long, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and like what I saw, and smile.”
Against the stream
His limited sense of self likely contributed to the despair he would feel at the end of every Games, when he stepped down from the medals podium and back into daily life. His victories could not protect him from the painful feelings that emerged. “Even with everything that had happened at that point, I just didn’t like who I was…”
His way of dealing with his heavy heart was to try to compartmentalize his feelings. When he swam, Phelps’s competitive drive allowed him to keep his demons mostly at bay. It was outside of the pool that they nipped at his heels. “If I was feeling angry or depressed or upset, I would shove it even further down so I wouldn’t have to deal with it,” he says.
For over a decade, Phelps tried to escape his torment with alcohol and other substances, which led to some well-publicized mistakes, including a DUI in 2004. “At that point,” he says, “I was self-medicating daily to try to fix whatever it was I was trying to run from, and I saw myself sliding deeper and deeper down that spiral staircase. It led me to the darkest moment of my life.”
I can honestly say after every Olympics, I think I fell into a major depression.
That low point came in 2014, approximately two years after the London Olympics. “I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore,” he says, but he hadn’t found a new passion. After another DUI arrest, he holed up in his house for days. “I’ll never forget being in my bedroom, and literally sitting in there for three to five days. I didn’t really sleep. I didn’t really talk to anybody. I just did not want to be alive anymore.”
His concerned family and friends were there, texting him, trying to talk, but it was with a near-stranger--Sports Illustrated reporter Tim Layden—that he spontaneously let his guard down.
Their conversation alone lifted an Olympic-size burden from Phelps’ broad shoulders, but it also made him realize just how much baggage he needed to unpack. “I carried [the painful emotions] for a long time, and I was fed up with it, and just basically said I have to figure out what was going on.” His friends and family convinced him to check into a 45-day rehab-treatment program; he arrived literally shaking in fright.
Navigating the new waters
On his first morning in rehab, Phelps was wakened at 6:00 am by a nurse who asked him to identify what he was feeling from a wall chart containing a list of the “eight basic emotions.” Having laid down his head only a few hours earlier, a few choice words sprang to mind—none of them on the chart (or printable here). “I was like, ‘What is the point of this?’”
But after a few days in therapy, his competitive spirit kicked in and he decided to tackle the experience head-on. As his walls gradually crumbled, Phelps began to bond with other patients, he tells Sports Illustrated. “I would be in sessions with complete strangers who know exactly who I am, but they don’t respect me for things I’ve done, but instead for who I am as a human being.”
Outside of his mother’s unconditional support, it was a new feeling for Phelps, who gradually started to see himself as someone other than “just” a swimmer.
His newfound vulnerability even helped him embrace the dreaded “eight basic emotions,” a tool he now finds invaluable. “If I wake up, and I’m upset, I can think back to the day before and understand the cause and talk about it.”
Also helpful was learning to say a positive affirmation about himself every time he walks under a doorway. By the end of the day, those small doses of personal cheerleading add up to increased self-confidence.
Phelps was moved by the outpouring of support he received during his breakdown and finds his depression is helped by “keeping close to the people who care about me the most.”
How best to do that? Communication.
I didn’t look at myself as a normal human being; I looked at myself as this kid that was really good at swimming,
“If you can talk about absolutely anything, even the slightest thing can make a huge difference,” he explains to esperanza. “My wife and I are still learning every day. We have things we bring up, just to get them on the table. I carried things for 20 years, and [now] I never, ever, ever just let anything sit inside of me. I joke that I learned to communicate when I was 31, but it’s true. And that’s what saved my life.”
During the fourth week of rehab, Phelps invited his estranged father to visit for “family week,” to confront his feelings of abandonment, and the two had several productive talks and he had stated in interviews that he was able to overcome his feelings of being abandoned by his father.
Being a father himself now to two young boys is another balm for his depression. “It’s made me 10 times stronger, and I’ve learned so much about patience,” he explains to the Kennedy Forum guests. He looks forward to someday sharing his experiences with his own kids. “I’m not ashamed of it, because it’s made me who I am today.”
Those close to him say that Phelps emerged from rehab happier and “more peaceful.” Today, he still has rough spells and bad days, but as he tells the crowd, he has an arsenal of tools and people to help him through.
Now, Phelps is eager to share what he’s learned with others in his new role as a mental health advocate. “It’s a lot harder [than being an athlete], but it’s a lot more enjoyable,” he reveals.
As part of his awareness campaign, Phelps appeared in the documentary Angst, featuring interviews with young adults coping with anxiety. In the film, he opens up about his struggles to a young swimmer who shares similar challenges. He describes how being bullied in middle and high school probably caused a lot of his anxiety and led to “massive spells of depression.” But he reassures the young man that “someone cares.”
“To me, Michael is a hero, along with all of the teens in the film who so bravely speak up about their anxiety and depression,” says the film’s producer Karin Gornick. “It’s been amazing to see how much his openness has impacted the teens that are watching.” One teen told Gornick, “‘I want my dad to see this film because if he sees that Michael Phelps has struggled, he’ll finally believe that my anxiety is real.’”
It’s moments like these that make sharing his painful experiences worthwhile, Phelps explains. “With athletes or celebrities, people think they’re so much different than everybody else. But I’ve gone through the same troubles. Sharing these stories, and having people come up [and say you’ve helped], it’s almost like I feel more human. That’s what I love the most.”
And at this point in his life, feeling human is truly more precious than gold.
* * * * *
Four habits that keep Michael Phelps happy and healthy:
#1: Enough ZZZs: Without enough shuteye during training, Phelps went from peppy and engaged to negative and sluggish. To ensure he’s rested as a parent of young children, he sleeps as much as possible while on the road, away from his family. At home, he finds himself going to bed earlier than ever, so that he can rise at 6 or 7am for “the morning shift” with his sons.
#2: Pass the salad: Having a family dinner is important to Phelps, not only for bonding but for teaching his son healthy eating habits. Known to eat up to 10,000 calories a day while training, Phelps has cut way back on the quantity but upped the quality of the food he consumes. He may occasionally “cheat” with a cheeseburger, but most of the time, he sticks to a diet of chicken, fish, or salad.
#3: Me time: Phelps finds much-needed pockets of peacefulness in the pool. Swimming even a mile or two (small potatoes for him!) helps him wash away the negative emotions swimming in his head.“If I’m in a bad mood or grumpy around the house,” he tells Health.com, “my wife will literally say, ‘Please go swim. Go take care of yourself.’” He also finds respite on the golf course, especially since there’s no cell service at the course nearest his home.
#4: Cardio: In addition to swimming and golf, Phelps finds that working out gives him more energy, allowing him to be a harder worker and a better husband, father, and son. At home in Arizona, he bikes about 100 miles a week. On the road, he’ll log between 45 and 90 minutes a day on a stationary bike.
Printed as “Michael Phelps: Heart of Gold”, Spring 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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