When Michael Phelps first burst onto the scene, he seemed like the perfect All-American role model. That squeaky clean image was shattered when he got his first DUI in 2004. Some tried to dismiss it as a one-time lapse in judgment until his second DUI came 10 years later. Finally, fans had to admit that he might have a drinking problem.
It was sad, to me, to see people immediately judging and dismissing him after he showed such public signs of personal turmoil. The man who had made such an impact in four Olympic games seemed to be at the end of his career both due to his alcohol abuse and his age. It surprised many when he confirmed that he would be defending his titles at the world’s biggest sporting event and many wondered if he would be left embarrassed. I, personally, could not wait to see him triumph.
While he was focusing on repairing his personal life, Phelps admitted that he “didn’t want to see another day” as he faced his demons. In a recent interview, he admitted that he was in denial until he realized how his drinking was affecting those around him. He needed help and it was a long battle.
Clean and Sober
He entered rehab, attending AA meetings, and began working on himself while dedicating his energy to the things that truly matter. He committed to his relationship with his long-time girlfriend (now fiancée), Nicole Johnson, and, together, the pair welcomed a baby boy named Boomer earlier this year.
He explained: “I think my mom was happy that I was alive because I think she saw the path I was going down. I think a lot of people close to me saw it. And I was going fast. Fast. Honestly, at one point I felt like I didn’t want to see another day.”
When he set his sights on the current Olympics, he said: “Before I even went to court, I said to myself that I’m not going to drink until after Rio – if I ever drink again. That was a decision I made for myself. I’m being honest with myself. Going into 2008 and 2012, I didn’t do that. I didn’t say I was going to take a year off from drinking and not have a drink.”
Ultimately, he seemed to come to the realization that, if he was going to get back in that pool and compete, especially at his age, he was going to have to make significant changes and “do this the right way.”
Back in the Pool
He elaborated on his thought process going into training by saying: “I’ve got to put my body in the best physical shape I can possibly get it in. Is it a challenge? No. I go to bed earlier. I sleep more. I wake up every day and have a completely clear head. I don’t feel like my head went through a brick wall. There are so many positives to it. Are there days I’m sitting on the golf course or sitting on my roof (patio) and would like to have a beer? Yeah. But I have a year left in my career. If I really want it bad enough, I will make that sacrifice.”
His family issues have been talked about throughout his career. His mother, Debbie, had to raise him alone and now Phelps says that therapy has helped him work through some of the pain from his childhood. Apparently, he feels that it has even changed how people see him.
“I feel like people think I’m more approachable now than I ever was,” he said. “I feel like I am OK and I am happy with who I am. I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself, who I truly am. I can honestly say there aren’t many people in this world who have seen who I really am.’
Maybe his new role as a father has helped him have a greater sense of purpose. Perhaps, he wants to be the kind of father that he didn’t have. His fiancée has seemingly played a huge role in his recovery and even accompanied him when he flew to Arizona to enter rehab.
At the end of the day, however, it seems that Phelps’ motivation stems from the best place possible. “I am doing this for me,” he said. “I’m back to being the little kid who once said anything is possible.”
Indeed, the difference in his attitude, demeanor, and determination was immediately clear when he walked out of the locker room in Rio. He competed in six events, winning one silver medal and five gold. After every event, with emotion etched on his face, he looked into the stands where his mother, fiancée and newborn son sat cheering him on.
His stumbles and struggles make him human. They also make him a hero. He is living proof that we can hit rock bottom and rise to the very top again.
Thank you and congratulations, Mr. Phelps.