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.