Michael Phelps Calls on USOC to Do More for Athletes With Depression

In a recent interview with David Axelrod, host of the CNN Podcast The Axe Files, Michael Phelps said the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) needs to do more to help athletes struggling with depression. “The USOC in my opinion hasn’t done anything to help us transition after an Olympics, and I think that’s sad. I think it’s unfortunate and it’s something that we’re working towards now,” said Phelps.

In the summer of 2016, Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, opened up about his struggles with depression. Despite his many accomplishments, Phelps, for a time, was not living a life that he found meaningful or fulfilling.

We all know the stories: Fall 2004 Phelps gets first DUI; fall 2008 Phelps is photographed taking bong hit; October 2014 Phelps gets second DUI; November 2014 Phelps enters rehab; August 2015 Phelps crushes it at US Nationals and sets the tone for the remainder of his career, culminating at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

The days following his second DUI in 2014 were his darkest. Phelps reiterated how close he was to ending his life in those days between his 2014 arrest and court date. “I’m somebody who’s gone through at least three or four major depression spells after [Olympic] Games that, you know, I’ve put my life in danger,” Phelps said.

Phelps, with the help of friends and family, overcame his depression. Though Phelps’s story is well-known, he is far from the only Olympian to suffer from depression repeatedly and over long periods of time. Fellow swimmers Allison Schmitt and Missy Franklin have both spoken about their struggles with depression, and Schmitt, in particular, has been very active in promoting mental health awareness in the United States.

Phelps, like many superstar athletes, broke onto the international scene at a young age–fifteen-years-old, to be exact. During his early years on the US National Team when he was still in high school, Phelps experienced all the same travails of teenage life, plus the pressure of a professional athlete.

Of his teenage and childhood years as a swimmer, Phelps said “There were moments growing up when I was training where I swam with aggression. I swam with a lot of anger,” said Phelps, “and, yeah, part of it was probably coming from home and coming from what I was going through when we were in our home life. . . . I let out a lot of profanity underwater. There were times when I was pushing off the wall, whether in pain or pissed off, and I am saying expletives out the wazoo.”

Phelps’s longevity on the National Team has also given him a deepened understanding of how the USOC grooms young up-and-coming athletes it believes have the potential to win gold medals at the Olympics. Alluding to the revolving door of medal winners past, present, and future, Phelps said, “When we come home from it, you know, they’re like kind of ‘Okay, check. Who’s the next kid coming in? Where’s the next person?’ And I think it’s sad.”

Phelps’s comments echo sentiments expressed by Olympic athletes and onlookers alike. SwimSwam recently spoke with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, who believes that the entire Executive Board of the USOC needs to be fired and replaced. Jenkins recommendation comes on the heels of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case that devastated hundreds of athletes, many of them gymnasts but some swimmers as well. USA Gymnastics, like USA Swimming, is a national governing body under the USOC.

Currently, more than 250 victims of Nassar are suing Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics in federal court, claiming USA Gymnastics did not do enough to protect them. One former swimmer, Marie Anderson, also testified that she was abused by Nassar during a “pelvic adjustment” to treat a lower back injury when she was 15-years-old.

Some teams, such as Phelps’s former Club Wolverine, have already incorporated mental health into their training programs. However, not all teams and coaches are equipped to do this; swim coaches should understand how swimmer’s minds work, generally speaking, but it would be irresponsible if not negligent to also expect a swim coach to know how to help a swimmer overcome depression, anxiety, or another mental illness.

In the summer of 2017, Phelps was appointed to the board of Australian medical technology company Medibio, which has developed technology that aids in the diagnosis of mental health disorders including depression and chronic stress.

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Joel Lin

Glad to see Michael is doing the hard things now, the things that make a big impact for people. It’s worth it.

Yozhik

Competitive sport is actually the activity that suppresses the natural defence mechanisms that protect body systems from overloading and are keeping them within the limits of optimal functionality. Pain, fatigue, cramps, vomiting etc are clear signals that the body is in danger and internal processes are under stress and are unbalanced. Surprisingly the most unprotected part of human body is brain. Only when one gets unconscious we get an idea that stress is beyond limits and brain stops functioning properly. It maybe not easy to distinguish between generic or developed mental issues but I totally agree with Phelps that regardless the origin much more attention should be paid to this problem. The consequences can be sever and irreversible. I wasn’t… Read more »

PerpetualAutumn

Is there a connection between what happened to Camille Moffat and depression?

I don’t know what the driving factor was for Camille Muffatt to retire early, but she died in a helicopter crash, so no obvious connection there.

Yozhik

No obvious connection.
She withdrew from European Championships just a week or so before it started. Left abruptly and cut all connections with her swimming team and coach and stopped swimming all together. Should she continue to swim she would be still alive.
Sure, no obvious connection. Helicopter crash wasn’t suicide.

Coach John

you are quickly becoming the new GINA of these forums…

Yozhik

You don’t know much about neither GINA nor Camille Mufatt, do you? Then why not to be fair and begin you statement as Mr. Keith did: “I don’t know …” . And what is this forum? Why have you decided that only people like you are admitted to this club. You are not owning it. It is up to Mr. Keith to decide to publish my postings or not to. From the heights of your many years you should’ve learned that not all people are a mirror reflection of your personality and the last thing you have to do is to label then to be inferior than you because of that.

Yozhik

Missy Franklin is suffering from depression? Since when? Any references?

Yozhik

Whatever she said in this article about psychological difficulties after finding herself on declining slope is right. But when I’ve read the following: “Going into Rio I was in the best physical shape of my entire life, I had the best year of training I’d ever had, and that meant nothing because mentally I was in such a terrible place that I was useless, my body was useless, I couldn’t have the power or control over my thoughts that I had had before and so when that’s not there it doesn’t matter how much training you do.”
I became critical.

Anon

Maybe cut her some slack?

Cate

What she’s describing is symptomatic of depression.

Yozhik

This discussion is a very slippery road. I would rather stay away of it. She wasn’t confident neither at OT nor at OG and I agree that such a psychological state decreased her competitive abilities. But the reason of losing confidence is slow times shown in practice. To make a statement that she was in the greatest form ever and only her mental issues caused her failure at Olympic Games to the level that usa coaches refused to put her on the easy winning relay, that makes me very sceptical of why she is entering such a discussion. I trust in this matter Phelps and Schmitt I’m very cautious with the discussion of another health issue of Missy Franklin that… Read more »

Yozhik

Thanks

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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