How Michael Phelps Conquered His Demons: ‘I Didn’t Want to Live’

The greatest Olympic athlete of all time—with a record 23 gold medals—opens up about Russian doping, his mental-health struggles, and sexual-assault awareness.

Harry How/Getty Images

“This feels weird,” offers Michael Phelps, flashing a guarded grin.

I couldn’t agree more, I tell him.

We’re seated in children’s chairs situated across from one another in an elementary school classroom—Harlem’s Alain L. Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship, to be exact. A small table, presumably intended for the study of multiplication tables or D’Nealian (do kids these days still learn cursive?), stands between us. The Olympic/swimming/sports legend has just given a rousing speech to an auditorium full of grade-schoolers about the importance of water conservation, urging each and every kid to turn off the faucet while they brush their chompers, which saves about four gallons of water. He’s partnered with Colgate for #EveryDropCounts, a campaign asking people across the country to pledge to do the same.

So here we are, sitting in these tiny chairs. I mention that the last time I saw him sitting in a chair he was in decidedly different spirits. It was just prior to the 200-meter butterfly Olympics semifinals in Rio. Phelps was set to go up against his rival, South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, who narrowly defeated him in the same event at the 2012 Games. As Le Clos shadowboxed in front of him, the camera trained on Phelps—face cloaked in a Team USA hood, bulging headphones blasting Future’s “Stick Talk”—giving the most intense game face you’ve ever seen.

“People always ask me, ‘Can you replicate it?’ and I tell them, ‘You can probably find a way for me to replicate that face, but you’re going to have to really piss me off,’” he says. “To get that mad is tough. That was just raw emotion coming out, because that race is one that I especially wanted back. I saw the lights on the camera and knew, ‘Crap, this is going viral. Whatever resting B-face I have on right there is going to take over, and there’s nothing I can do.’”  

Over the course of our talk, Phelps candidly discussed his mental-health struggles, including his low point following the 2012 Olympic Games, and much more.

Let’s talk about Colgate’s #EveryDropCounts. Why did you decide to get involved in this sustainability initiative?

Water’s obviously been a huge part of my life, and I wanted to learn more about it. And honestly, this is just perfect. You think about small, little things to conserve water—things we do every day that can save hundreds of gallons of water. You think about how much of the globe is covered by water, but also how many people don’t have clean drinking water. We’re obviously lucky to have that in our everyday lives, but we waste so much of it. This is a big passion of mine. You know, everything I’m doing post-retirement or post-swimming is stuff that I want to do, and I’m excited to try and make a change.

If you look at California right now, with its drought conditions and wildfires, that seems to be a scenario that the rest of the country should be trying to avoid.

We have control of some stuff, and we don’t have control of other stuff. So the stuff we have control over, why can’t we all just jump onboard and make it easy? It’s not that hard to turn the faucet off while brushing your teeth, and that right there can save four gallons of water. This is something my wife Nicole and I are passionate about, especially now that Boomer’s to the age where he’s trying to mimic everything that we do, and since we have another one on the way, we’re about to be a family of four. The average use of water for a family of four is about four hundred gallons a day. That’s a lot of water. So it should be something where we can all get together and contribute. It should be a no-brainer.

How has becoming a father fueled your activism? Bachelorhood is a pretty selfish state of being, so you must be more cognizant of the world you’re leaving behind to your children. 

Oh, you have to be. Obviously it’s different when I was living the bachelor life, but now Nicole and I are raising a family together, and trying to teach them some of the small things that can change the world—not just with water, but with trying to destigmatize mental health, too. That’s so exciting for us. We don’t spend a lot of time at home, but it’s worth it. I can speak about things I’m passionate about and potentially make a difference.

This is life-changing. If I never talked, who knows if I’d still be alive today.
Michael Phelps, Olympic legend
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How do you plan on “trying to destigmatize mental health?”

Well, I really want to dive into mental health. We just did a documentary called Angst, and I sat down with a little 11-year-old boy and he told me that he didn’t want to be alive. That’s wild to me. I feel like everybody in this country has just swept mental health under a rug. Nobody talks about it, and nobody wants to talk about it.

I’m from New York City and you see someone walking down the street talking to themselves or yelling and you think, oh, that’s just New York City. But the reality is these people all need help, and it shouldn’t just be brushed aside.

Exactly. And when you talk about mental health, there are so many people in this world that go through the same exact stuff. People have anxiety, people have depression, everybody goes through it. I’m not superhuman. I’m just a kid who liked to swim, and was good at it. Yes, I have gone through depression. It’s something that happens, and now it’s something I’m more aware of and am able to communicate if I’m not having a good day or if I want to talk about something. In the past, I just stuffed it away, didn’t talk about it, and let it eat me away.

A lot of men, in particular, have been socially conditioned to not seek therapy and just bottle up their emotions.

I’m trying to get people to open up more and be more vulnerable. That’s a scary word, though. And there’s this macho mentality with men where we don’t want to talk about our problems. But that’s really all it is, is talking through it. When I’m able to talk through my problems, it’s like a one-hundred-pound weight has been lifted off my chest, and I’m able to live a happier life, be a better father, be a better husband, and be a harder worker. It’s taken me thirty years to get there, but it doesn’t matter. I was able to get through it and learned a lot about myself by going through some of the darkest places I’ve ever been to in my life, and I’m a better person now because of it. And you know, the suicide rate is way too high. This is life-changing. If I never talked, who knows if I’d still be alive today.

Do you remember your low point—and how you pulled yourself out of it?

Of course. I was locked in my room for three-to-five days, not eating, not wanting to talk to anybody, and just wanting to be alone. I didn’t want to live. This was in 2012. And I found that I needed a change. I wanted to do something different, to do something better. I was sick and tired of just moping around, so I decided to get help. And since that day, I’ve learned so much more about myself. Now, this is the real me. Before that day, it’s not like I had a mask on, but I wasn’t truly showing all of who I really am. That’s what I’m doing now, and it’s a better way of life.

It must have been tough having a spotlight on you throughout your youth. People made the biggest deal out of your youthful indiscretions.  

You can look at it both ways, but it’s what I signed up for. For me to have the goals that I wanted to accomplish and things that I wanted to do, that came with the territory. A lot of people ask if I’d change anything, and the answer is no. Sure, some of the times sucked going through, but you know what? It made me who I am today. And I’m much happier with the person I am today than who I was three years ago. Now, I’m able to live my life how I want. I’m happily married, have a health baby boy, and another one on the way. Life is good.

You still look to be in good shape. Managed to avoid the Kobe Bryant retirement bod.

I did let myself go during my first retirement [in 2012], and I swore I’d never do it again. I put on about 15 to 20 pounds at my highest, and probably lost about 12 to 15 pounds. But for me, through this process in my life, I’ve learned a lot more about how I work. Working out has been my job, so for me to be successful I have to work out. So whether it’s me forcing myself out of bed and sweating for a half-hour or biking a 100 to 150 miles a week or swimming a couple of times a week, I need to stay active. It’s a mind-body thing.

Eating 8,000-10,000 calories a day.

Yeah, man. We burn so many calories. I would fluctuate between 5 and 10 pounds a week just from training, so I was forcing food into my system even if I didn’t want to. It was massive. When I was still growing, I was eating a ton because it was my job to replenish the calories I was burning every day.

I read that you were at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas recently, where a gunman opened fire killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more. That must have really made you think, especially with your pregnant wife there with you.

We went just on Friday. A buddy of ours, Eric Church, was the headliner and we figured we’d go because it’s just a 45-minute flight from Arizona, and we didn’t know when we’d be able to see him again. I love his music and love watching him play, so we flew up and then flew out the next morning. It’s crazy to think about. What if we had stayed the weekend? Why did he choose Sunday, when Friday was the most packed day with about 35,000 people?

That really hit home for us. That week I think was harder emotionally for Nicole than it was for me, but yeah, it’s wild to think about. I had friends who were there on Sunday night. I got a call and I was like, “Dude, are you in a hotel because that looks like a Vegas hotel room. You weren’t there last night, were you?” And he was there. Thankfully the people I knew that were there are all safe. But the world that we live in is nuts. I even thought, I don’t know if I want to go to the Super Bowl this year, because you just never know what’s going to happen.

You’ve been providing informal counseling to some athletes, including Tiger Woods after his recent DUI arrest. Is that an area that you want to get into? 

It’s fun. I was very thankful to have a great support team around me and a lot of help throughout my career, and that’s what allowed me to try to be the best person I can be, and the best athlete I can be. So, everybody goes through similar things that I go through every day. A buddy of mine [Grant Hackett] is an Australian swimmer who’s like a brother to me and has had a couple of incidents that he’s had to learn from and grow from. I have no problems just being me, opening up about the experiences I’ve had, and giving my two cents if I can. I want to help as many people as I can.

And you really are retired this time, right?

I’m done. There’s nothing else. I was talking to someone earlier today who was like, man, you could still do it. And I probably could. But, why? I have nothing else to accomplish. I came back this time because I was pissed off after 2012, and how I performed. I didn’t want to live with that for the rest of my life, so I sacrificed for a little over two years to get back to where I finished. And it was tough to get back to that point but I wanted to not have a what if? Twenty years down the road, I can now look back and say I hung my suit up exactly the way I wanted to, and if someone else thinks differently, well, I really don’t care.

There was the hashtag #MeToo that circulated last weekend, with women sharing their stories of sexual harassment or assault. And fellow U.S. Olympic athlete McKayla Maroney disclosed that she’d been sexually assaulted by her former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, who stands accused of abusing scores of women—including many U.S. Olympians. How prevalent is sexual assault among the Olympic community?

For me, I’ve worked with the same exact doctor my whole career. He’s been with me in Baltimore, with me in Michigan, with me in Arizona, and he does everything. If it goes on in the swimming world, I don’t know about it.

So you better than most understand the nature of that doctor-athlete relationship, and how extreme of a violation it must be to have that trust broken in such a way.

Oh, of course. I understand that it would be [damaging] if that trust were broken. It’s crazy to really think about everything that goes on. We live in a crazy world, and I’m so glad that people are using their voices to speak out and discuss these things. That’s the greatest thing in the world, right? We’re given this voice and should be able to speak our opinions and tell the facts. Now, there are a lot more people that aren’t afraid to stand up and talk and just be honest, and that’s something that, over time, will hopefully make the world a better place.

Do you think that at the next Olympics, given the U.S. election interference and Russian doping scandal, it will be a really charged atmosphere when it comes to the U.S. vs. Russia? There’s always heavy competition between the two countries but this might be different.

The one thing that I’ll say really about that whole thing is, I’ve testified in front of Congress about doping in sports, and it’s something that really bothers me. I watched the documentary Icarus. As an Olympian, I’ve competed at the highest level in swimming and I can honestly say I don’t know if I ever competed against a clean field, and that’s frustrating. I worked as hard as I could to get to where I am and someone’s taking the easy way out and cheating, man, that’s so frustrating. In my opinion, if someone cheats they should just be gone. Bye. Because that’s not what sports is. I don’t want my son to come to me and say, “Well, this person is doing this or that,” and until the IOC [International Olympic Committee] really takes charge of what’s going on, who knows where sports are going to go. I’d like to see some changes there… I mean, people who are testing positive not only once but twice are still allowed to compete and represent their country? That’s completely wrong.

That makes sense.  

Especially at the Olympics. No matter what’s going on in the world, this is the one time where athletes from all around the world can come together, represent their countries, and enjoy those two weeks. As an American it’s usually in an election year, so no matter what your politics are, Americans can put all that stuff aside and get behind their country. More recently—I won’t get into it—but all the politics and that stuff just has to change. It’s about sports and about all of us coming together.