Michael Phelps Prioritizes Mental Health Over Winning Gold Medals

The all-time great has had struggles of his own

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Sometimes, the ones who seem to have everything they could ever want, are the ones hurting the most. One would think all of the money in the world, fame, sponsorships, cars, houses, fancy clothes and, most notably, 28 Olympic Medals, would be more than enough to satisfy anyone. But, that assumption would lead you to much surprise when referring to the 23-time Olympic Gold Medal winner Michael Phelps.

Broken record after broken record, the 32-year old Phelps has accomplished absolutely everything a professional swimmer could ever dream of. He broke Mark Spitz’s 1972 record for most first-place finishes — seven — at any single Olympic Games back in 2008 when he finished with eight. He holds 82 medals total in major international long course competition. Phelps has won World Swimmer of the Year eight times and American Swimmer of the Year a whopping 11 times over the course of his career.

Yet, still, after it is all said and done, Phelps’ greatest competition was never in a swimming pool — it was in his mind.

“I can tell you I’ve probably had at least half a dozen depression spells that I’ve gone through. And the one in 2014, I didn’t want to be alive,” Phelps told TODAY back in December of last year.

“But going through my all-time low, you know, kind of seeing where I was and then seeing what I have now,” he said,  “I’m so thankful for my family and friends around me who were able to help me and were able to communicate with me.”

Back in 2004, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Maryland. He was sentenced to 18 months probation, fined and ordered to speak at various schools about his experience. Ten years later in 2014, Phelps was suspended for six months after being arrested for driving under the influence for the second time. He locked himself in his room for four days, and thought long and hard about the feelings he had inside.

“After years, and years, and years of just shoving every negative, bad feeling down to the point where I mean, I just didn’t even feel it anymore,” he explained. “It was a long, long, long road and I just never wanted to deal with it. And for me, that sent me down a spiral staircase real quick and like I said, I found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”

Phelps says that the biggest decision he has made was to finally open up about his emotional struggles. He remembered how he would compartmentalize every feeling he had, lock it up and store it away with the intention of never bringing it up with anyone, anywhere.

“You know, for me, I basically carried just about every negative emotion you can possibly carry along for 15, 20 years and I never talked about it. And I don’t know why that one day I decided to just open up. But since that day it’s just been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life and it’s something I’m very thankful for,” he explained.

Now, as a father, Phelps has said publicly he will make sure his children know about all of his struggles. He credits his mother for raising him in a way where she always helped him through his struggles.

“I think for me I’ll share every experience with my children. You know, I get the question from time to time now, ‘If I could change anything in my life, would I?’ And no. You know, yeah, some of them have been absolutely miserable and brutal and haven’t been the funnest experiences to go through, but they’ve made me who I am today and they really have helped me grow as a person,” he said.

“I was able to grow through it. You know, I think I’m now finally to the point where I can look at myself in the mirror and like who I see,” he said. “I mean, it’s life. We all go through ups and downs. And I have a great support system and a great group around me and I’m happy.”

Tuesday, Phelps was present at the Kennedy Forum Breakfast at the Hilton Chicago. The event was held to discuss the topic of mental health. He once again talked about the situation in 2014 that changed his perspective.

“Since that day it’s been some of the most enjoyable living I’ve ever had. I got to a point in my life where I was ready to seek help,” he said. “People look at celebrities like they’re something special, but I’ve had the same struggles as everybody else.”

“I was shaking,” he said in reference to his first day of treatment, but now, “I’m not afraid of that … it’s made me 10 times stronger as a parent.”

David Axelrod, onetime senior adviser to then-President Barack Obama and current director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, shared the stage with Phelps at the breakfast. Axelrod spoke of his experience after hearing about the death of his father. He even shared how he buried the situation with alcohol.

“I carried for a long time. I was hiding, I was trying to run from myself,” Axelrod said.

Phelps is part of the documentary Angst which made its debut last year and hopes it brings light to such an important topic in today’s society. He also joined the organization called Medibio in 2017, a company focused on diagnosis of mental health disorders. One of his biggest purposes now is to let people of all ages know that it is OK to talk about your feelings, even if they include those of anxiety and depression.

“Those moments and those feelings, those emotions for me, are lightyears better than winning an Olympic medal. You have the chance to save a life, and that’s way more powerful,” said Phelps. “It’s OK to ask for help.”

Phelps is dead on here. It is always OK to ask for help. It is quite refreshing to know that while so many people in the world struggle with things related to mental health, even the most famous people do too. It’s normal. It’s part of life and, for Phelps, it has made him that much stronger.

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