“He had no idea what to do with the rest of his life. It made me feel terrible. I remember one day I said: ‘Michael, you have all the money that anybody your age could ever want or need; you have a profound influence in the world; you have free time — and you’re the most miserable person I know. What’s up with that?”
The New York Times revealed that these strong words were spoken into the face of Michael Phelps by his long-time coach and second father Bob Bowman towards the end of 2014, a year that shaped the course of his life and shook him completely due to incidents he is never likely to forget.On Tuesday, August 10th, Phelps added another page in his personal history book that applies to world swimming in general when the American roared to win his 20th and 21st Olympic gold medals in Rio de Janeiro. These victories, as Phelps would probably admit, are sweeter than all others, given the kind of struggle he had to go through in order to achieve them.
Sometimes as sports fans, journalists and experts, we are so immersed in the ‘action’ aspect of things that we lose track of what the athletes have actually suffered or sacrificed to realize their dreams. While we might have seen the perfect side of Michael Phelps every four years since 2004, the swimmer has battled imperfections, demons, sadness, depression and a mental death to get there.
A lot of people might not know this but Phelps was not particularly “interested” in participating in the 2012 London Olympics, and did not give his 100 percent in training during the build-up. What happened as a result? He won “only” six medals, including four golds and two silvers. A New York Times report reveals that Phelps qualified for the 2012 Games with virtually no preparation and an utter lack of interest.
An incident that shook his world
Phelps, who had previously announced that he would not be swimming anymore after London, chose to come back from retirement in 2014. But it did not begin well, as he failed to win any of the finals at the 2014 US Summer Championships. However, this was not the low that hit him the worst. In September 2014, history repeated itself as Phelps was arrested for DUI (Driving Under Influence), as a result of which he was suspended from US Swimming for half a year. The alcohol, reckless company and cluelessness had sent Phelps into an oblivion from which he did not want to return.
A startling admission to Today saw the swimmer actually describe the kind of mental space he was in at the time of his arrest. “I was at the lowest place I’ve ever been. Honestly, I sort of at one point, felt like I didn’t want to see another day, I felt like it should be over,” he said.
Quite a startling and shocking admission by a man who, as compared to the regular Joe, has everything there can be had by a human being on earth. However, sometimes it is not about what you have but about how you feel, and Phelps realized that he had become a robot who had grown out of love with swimming during the 2008-2012 period, which culminated into him falling into a deep dark abyss.
All those weekends and holidays he had missed as a teenager to become the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time, the toll of his parents’ divorce, the lack of any sort of friends and his achievements becoming a burden, converged into a one big mess in his brain.
Going to rehab and finding himself
The DUI incident propelled Phelps to check into a rehab in Arizona called the Meadows. Little did Phelps know that the six weeks he was going to spend there would alter the course of his life forever. The three fortnights at the rehab, according to him, were in hindsight the part of a journey of self-discovery.
Phelps found his real self and in the process, got back the indispensable parts of life he had chucked out. He got back in touch with his father, whom he had not spoken to since 2004, and that, literally, stopped his nightmares and brought him peaceful sleep.
Along with getting back his family, Phelps also decided to commit to his girlfriend Nicole Johnson, who became his fiancée in early 2015. With his personal life settled, Phelps decided to return to the love he had fallen out with – swimming.
Training hard like he had done when he was a teenager, Phelps got his mojo back and won big at the 2015 Winter National Championships. He celebrated those wins in a manner that reflected redemption was on its way.
Things kept getting better for Phelps from thereon as he welcomed his first baby, Boomer, in May 2016. He celebrated that in style – by qualifying for the Olympics – and became the first athlete to represent the US Swimming Team in five editions. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in late 2015, Phelps had said, "The performances were there because I worked, recovered, slept and took care of myself more than I ever had. I'm back to being the little kid who once said anything is possible. You're going to see a different me than you saw in any of the other Olympics.”
Success, happiness and the drive to keep going
Not only is he a different man at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but Phelps looks much happier than in 2012. He seems content and in the zone, which we saw in 2004 and 2008.
It is quite incredible the amount of intensity, work, preparation and determination that need to be put in by a man like Michael Phelps, even after winning 18 Olympic gold medals. You sometimes shudder to think, why does he need to do that? Can’t he enjoy his life like regular famous people, by appearing on magazine covers, partying and being loved by fans?
The answer is the exact reason why he is Michael Phelps and has won more medals than many nations have combined to win in their Olympic history. He exists at a level where the ordinary person cannot even reach in his/her imagination. The immediate irony, despite his exceptional existence, is that his problems are like those of regular people and involve drinking-driving, break-ups and separation from parents. Phelps, like all of us, has felt mechanical at some point in his life – the only difference being that his boredom came after winning 18 Olympic gold medals.
As scary as this might sound, Phelps is not done yet at the 2016 Rio Olympics and could get two more gold medals. Maybe he would have won more by the time you read this. But irrespective of whether he wins or does not win more medals at Rio, you should not be surprised if Phelps appears in Tokyo 2020.
After all, the journey for Phelps now is not about medals or competing, but about doing what makes him happy.