Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, is using his lofty perch and personal experience to call on the U.S. Olympic Committee to help athletes who are struggling with depression.
Phelps is speaking out at a time when a host of current and former athletes are bringing mental health issues to national attention, attempting to remove the stigma from depression and suicidal impulses. NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan recently opened up about their mental health struggles, as have Olympic swimmers Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt. Phelps echoed them and said he “straight wanted to die” at one point in his career.
“I’m somebody who’s gone through at least three or four major depression spells after [Olympic] Games that, you know, I’ve put my life in danger,” Phelps said on David Axelrod’s “The Axe Files” podcast. “… The USOC, in my opinion, hasn’t done anything to help us transition after an Olympics. I think it’s sad. I think it’s unfortunate. It’s something that we’re working towards now.”
After the 2012 Olympics, Phelps said, he became suicidal after “doing the bare minimum” to compete and wanting to get away from the sport. By 2014, when he got his second DUI, he admitted he was “running from something,” adding, “I wanted to die. I straight wanted to die.”
“We were prescribed Ambien because we were traveling the world, and I actually looked back and I had one Ambien left,” he said. “And I’m actually happy I only had one. … That scares the living hell out of me.”
At that point, Phelps said, he asked for help and went through rehab in Arizona. He said he hopes the USOC will help future athletes before they reach that point. By his estimate, as many as 90 percent of athletes go through a post-Games depression.
“We’re competing to represent our country. We’re competing to do everything we can to try to win a medal or to try to do our country proud by wearing the stars and stripes on international ground,” Phelps told Axelrod, describing himself as “the boy in the bubble” because of his athletic focus. “When we come home from it, you know, they’re like, kind of, ‘Okay, check. Who’s the next kid coming in? Where’s the next person?’ And I think it’s sad.”
Phelps described the post-Olympic void, saying, “You take a step and just fall right down.” For him, that first stumble was a DUI in 2004, when he “didn’t know what was causing me to put myself in bad situations” because of alcohol and drug use.
Olympic athletes have long talked about the difficulty of coming down off their competitive highs.
“Everything after it feels ‘bleh,’ ” Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin told The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga. “ … The hardest thing about the Olympics is the incredible emotional valley you feel after it: ‘What is my life meant for, now that the Olympics is over?’ That’s kind of what it feels like.”
Franklin and Schmitt have also gone public with their struggles, with Franklin saying she was inspired to speak out by Schmitt and Phelps.
“I feel so fortunate because I had so many incredible athletes pave the way for me.,” she recently told CNN, mentioning the two swimmers by name. ” … Both really openly talk of their depression and what they went through. I just think we need so much more of that.
The USOC’s Pivot program aims to help retiring athletes “discover and cultivate their next passions and goals as they transition out of elite competition.” The program’s promotional materials promise that “athletes will realize they are not alone, have the opportunity to share and relate their experiences with others going through the same transition, and receive support for future success.”
Phelps, now 32 and the married father of two sons, described on the podcast having ADHD and being placed on Ritalin as a child, admitting that he didn’t like “going to the nurse” every day at school to get his pill and arguing to stop taking it. And as an adult, he said, there was a struggle to turn off the “competitive switch.”
“There are people who love to win and there are people who don’t like to lose. I think for me, I just didn’t want to lose. That was one thing,” he said. ” … I didn’t care how much pain I was in every day in workouts because I knew it was going to be greater at the end of the day when I got to the end of the road and I was able to do something that people thought was absolutely impossible. For me, it was just that competitive switch.”
For Phelps, like many young athletes, sports helped him escape from an unpleasant family situation. His parents are divorced, and he wasn’t close to his father.
“There were moments growing up when I was training where I swam with aggression. I swam with a lot of anger,” he said, “and, yeah, part of it was probably coming from home and coming from what I was going through when we were in our home life. … I let out a lot of profanity underwater. There were times when I was pushing off the wall, whether in pain or pissed off, and I am saying expletives out the wazoo.”
The Michael Phelps Foundation hopes to promote swimming, as well as raising awareness about physical and mental health.
“Every day somebody is going to have ups and downs and if we can continue to help people get out and talk about things and open up, for me that was something that completely changed my life and I was able to see a much cleaner, happier, healthier way of living,” he said. ” … So if I can honestly save a life or save two lives that’s all I want. For me, that’s way bigger than ever winning a gold medal.”
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