At first, after you pose the question, there is dead quiet from Phelps. It stretches on and on until the silence becomes the point. You realize that contained in it is an angry tension, like a buzz on the line. Finally, Phelps speaks.
“That’s what I got from them,” he says.
“How long should I stay silent?” he asks. “I can sit here and be silent for as long as you want, because that’s what I got.”
Ask former skeleton World Cup champion Katie Uhlaender how the bureaucracy treated her when she suffered from repeated panic attacks in 2018, after finding the body of her close friend Steven Holcomb, the gold medalist bobsledder, dead of an overdose in his room at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center. “I felt like a leper,” she says.
“I know [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials] aren’t evil,” she adds. “I just think they are engulfed in a system that has existed in a certain way for a very long time.”
Even now, years after the Larry Nassar disaster, that system still causes athletes to fear career repercussions if they complain or show too many signs of mental distress. It’s a system that for so long was trained on the commodification of young bodies that it became insensible to their inner pain. It’s a system that has had trouble repurposing and still produces more propaganda than reform, still overpays all the wrong people at the expense of those who work hardest. It’s a system that remains a top-down operation, with athletes at the bottom, fearful of speaking up.
“We have no rights,” Uhlaender says. “To be clear, the only right we have is the right to compete.”
It’s a system that continues to be profoundly distrusted by the very champions it is supposed to serve.
Last week, Moreau, longtime vice president of sports medicine for the USOC, filed a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit claiming he was wrongfully fired because he pressed too hard for athlete-health protections. Perhaps the most disturbing claim made by Moreau is that “the USOC is not following standards of care related to the management of suicidal athletes” and lacks “the appropriate internal resources” to deal with them. In the suit, Moreau asserts that in March 2019, he warned the USOC that an athlete might take his or her own life. Shortly afterward, 23-year-old cyclist Kelly Catlin committed suicide.
The USOPC’s chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, contends Moreau’s claims are “gross mischaracterizations” and that he was let go because the organization wanted someone with broader credentials than his chiropractic background. It’s difficult at this point to say how reliable a narrator Moreau is, but either way, the USOPC is in another mess. If Moreau is credible, then the USOPC has failed to enact the significant culture change it promised. If, as Hirshland says, he is unreliable and lacks broad qualifications, then the USOPC harbored a shoddy character as its sports medicine expert for a decade.
Regardless, Phelps hopes Moreau’s court battle will expose what he says is the USOPC’s neglect of athletes’ psychological well-being. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in people aged 15 to 24. The majority of Olympians happen to fall smack in the middle of this vulnerable age group. Phelps, who has spent the past two years working on a documentary on the subject, suspects that as many as 70 percent of Olympians suffer from periodic depression. The unusual pressures they experience may make them even more susceptible than their peers. Yet in Phelps’s view, the USOPC offers almost no substantial, sophisticated resources for dealing with it.
“I don’t know of anything they’ve done to help us mental health-wise,” Phelps says. “There are a lot of us who feel the same exact way, and we’re pretty hurt that they choose not to do anything about it. . . . I believe they only care about us when we’re swimming well or competing well.”
The USOPC offers access to sports psychologists, but athletes say the focus is enhancing medal performance, not on dealing with serious afflictions such as depression. When Uhlaender was in a state of emergency in 2018 over lingering effects of Holcomb’s death combined with an autoimmune illness, the USOPC “didn’t direct me to an expert,” she says, but rather to a sports performance psychologist.
“He told me, ‘You seem to perform better from a dark place,’ ” she says. “That’s what I got.”
If athletes’ well-being really was a priority, then the USOPC would make it easier for them to seek expert help confidentially. Instead, it demands they sign medical waivers that grant the USOPC overly broad rights to share private health information with their coaches, and even officials in charge of team selection and all sorts of nonmedical staff. When Uhlaender balked, she was told if she didn’t sign, she would no longer have access to the Olympic training center.
That is the dead opposite of an athlete welfare policy, Phelps points out. At his height as a competitor, Phelps feared if he confessed the need for help to a USOC official, it would spread all over the organization.
“I was afraid to say something because I thought I couldn’t,” he says. “Then everybody knows. How are we ever going to feel comfortable or safe or confident that we’ll get help, instead of them just running around and blabbing their mouths?”
Too self-conscious to ask for help, he would drown inside while outwardly winning medals. He would shut off emotionally until it was over and then find a way to decompress.
“All I could do was stuff it down,” he says. He became “damn good at compartmentalizing. And that’s not heathy.”
By 2014, “it brought me to the point that I did not want to be alive.”
If the USOPC really wanted to make athlete well-being a priority, then surely someone would have called Phelps by now to talk with him about those experiences and how to help other medalists who may be internalizing problems. Who has more insight into how great athletes can be troubled greatly than a man who won 23 gold medals while battling depression?
You would think the USOPC’s top leadership would congratulate Phelps for dragging a critical issue into the light. Quite the opposite: After an interview in March 2018 in which Phelps detailed his struggles with post-Games depression and pleaded for better athlete care, the only response he got was an email from a marketing executive to Phelps’s agent vaguely challenging Phelps’s credibility, insisting the governing body had launched a program for dealing with depression and that “Michael was made aware of this.”
Olympians may look like they are invincible, with their gilded prizes and chiseled bodies. But they’re not, as Phelps can attest. They are tender-boned, stressed, overstriving, secretly fearful. “It breaks my heart,” he says. It has become more than a project for him, a cause.
“I’m doing everything I can do to save one life,” he says. Someone has to try.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.