To most of us, professional athletes are basically real-life superheroes. Their physical gifts are almost otherworldly, and off the court or playing field, a lot of them devote their time to helping the people and causes that are near and dear to their hearts. Unfortunately, these athletes are just as human as we are, and their everyday worries are far more real than a little kryptonite.
Michael Phelps is often hailed as one of the greatest Olympians of all time, but behind the gleam of his gold medals, the legendary athlete was quietly dealing with an inner storm of emotions that threatened to tear him apart. With his illustrious career now in the rearview, Phelps has finally come forward to reveal that, sometimes, even a champion swimmer can drown.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Michael Phelps began his historic career at the tender age of seven. An outlet for his ADHD, swimming quickly came to dominate the young man’s life.
After breaking age-group records left and right, Phelps qualified for the 2000 Summer Olympics at age 15, becoming the youngest male to make the U.S. Olympic swim team since 1932. Though he failed to place in his event, Phelps was clearly on the fast track to becoming a world champion.
His first medal came in 2001 when he won gold at the World Aquatics Championships for the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps’ record-breaking performance made him the youngest male ever to set a world record in swimming and instantly put his star on the map.
More record-breaking performances followed in 2002 and 2003, with Phelps walking away with seven golds and four silvers. With the 2004 Summer Olympics fast approaching, Phelps looked poised to win big for the U.S.
And win big he did, as the 19-year-old won his first Olympic gold medal with a world-record time in the 400-meter individual relay. He went on to finish with six gold medals and two bronze, marking the second-best performance ever at a single Olympics.
Phelps continued his Olympic career in spectacular fashion at the 2008 games in Beijing, winning a record eight gold medals across eight events. By surpassing Mark Spitz’s seven-gold performance in 1972, Phelps officially established himself as one of the greatest swimmers of all time.
But the achievements didn’t stop there for Phelps, as he returned to the London Olympics in 2012 and added four golds and two silvers to an already jam-packed trophy case. With his six medal wins, Phelps officially passed Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Following the 2012 Olympics, Phelps officially retired from competitive swimming, stating a desire to move on with his life. But although retirement appeared to be exactly what Phelps needed after two decades of nonstop competition, things quickly took a turn for the American hero.
In September of 2014, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. He plead guilty to the offense, and as a result, USA Swimming banned him from the organization for six months and barred him from representing them.
From here, Phelps’ mental health quickly deteriorated. His depression – which he had battled in spells throughout his life – came back in full force, and at one point he locked himself in his room for four days and refused to interact with anyone.
In an interview with TODAY, Phelps explained that it was years of repressing his emotions that ultimately led him on this downward spiral: “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. It was a long, long, long road and I just never wanted to deal with it.”
At one point, Phelps’ depression got so bad that he actually considered taking his own life: “[Repressing my emotions] sent me down a spiral staircase real quick… I found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Thankfully, Phelps sought help for his mental health issues, and after regular therapy sessions, he had a breakthrough. By talking through his emotions instead of bottling them up, Phelps finally felt he could live life and be himself again.