Swimming icon wants to spread awareness about mental health issues and says it's time for the next generation to scale new heights in the pool.
The Michael Phelps most of the world knows is the one we’ve literally only seen on the surface. The American swimming legend, widely considered the greatest Olympian of all-time, has come to be defined by the briefest of moments – sometimes nothing more than seconds – spent in the confines of chlorinated water.
During his masterful career, we got glimpses of Phelps’ life outside of the pool – and at times they were glimpses he wishes were left private.
But now that he’s retired for good, Phelps the amphibious medal and world record hoarder is giving way to Phelps the human.
“There are a lot of things I can do now outside of the pool that could potentially be bigger than me winning X amount of medals,” says a relaxed Phelps in Dubai ahead of an Under Armour store opening in Dubai Mall.
“Medals are obviously great and I’ll always love to see them or hold them or talk about them, but I don’t want my career to just be gold medals or world records. I’d like my career and legacy to be bigger than that.
“My competitive side is finished inside the pool, but the goals that I have now are probably bigger than what I had in the pool.”
Bigger than 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which came on the podium’s highest level? That’s setting the bar high, even for someone who has constantly defied the odds.
But now at 32, Phelps has infinitely more life to live than what he’s already spent in the pool. Such is the nature of athletes that their run in sport, and especially their dominance, can only last so long.
There is an afterlife where time, once as precious as the gasps of oxygen Phelps utilised while torpedoing through the water, is suddenly in abundance and the challenge transitions from how to maximise it, to how to fill it.
“Now I get to do things and talk about things that I’ve never really talked about before,” Phelps says.
It may be difficult to fathom, but at one point in Phelps’ life – while in the midst of a transcendent career – he was struggling with mental health illness and substance abuse.
On the heels of floundering (for him) at the 2012 Olympics – “London was almost forced on me” – Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. Ten years earlier, at the age of 19, came his first DUI, and in 2009, Phelps was photographed inhaling marijuana.
Following his second arrest, Phelps ultimately checked in to a rehabilitation facility to seek treatment in an in-patient programme.
After dealing with his inner demons behind closed doors for so long, Phelps has recently let the public in to understand what plagued him. He has also joined the board of directors of Medibio, an Australian medical technology company that has developed a test to help diagnose mental health disorders, depression and stress.
Phelps’ message is this: if even he, someone who arguably belongs on the Mount Rushmore of athletes, can grapple with mental illness, then there’s no shame in anyone else battling inner conflict.
“I can honestly say I’ve gone through depression probably a half-dozen times. I have anxiety, I have ADHD, there are things that make me human,” Phelps says. “I’ll get up and talk about it because it’s part of my life and I have nothing to hide.
“Throughout most of my career, I don’t want to say I had a mask on, but some of the times I wasn’t really showing who I was. I think over the last three years I’ve showed this is who I am and this is what you get.
“When it comes to mental health, hopefully we can teach people that it’s okay to not be okay. Look, I wanted to kill myself and I was able to come back two years later (at the 2016 Rio Olympics) and be the happiest guy in the world because I had the right tools around me and I was willing to change. I was willing to get better.”
While the personal fight against mental illness may be ongoing, Phelps has admittedly embraced a paternal role now that he’s more capable than ever of positively influencing those around him.
The reason for that is, well, he’s actually a father now. Phelps’ wife Nicole gave birth to son Boomer 16 months ago and the couple now have a second child on the way.
Outside of being a father to his son – who he holds dear after his own father “was never around when I was a kid” – Phelps has become a sort of dad to the rest of the swimming world.
The transition to that role came at the Rio Olympics, where he was on a United States team full of up-and-coming swimmers who grew up with posters of Phelps on their walls.
“Throughout my Olympic career, I was very quiet and kept to myself because I was going out to compete a mission. So I was always in my own lane,” Phelps says. “(At the Rio Olympics), I felt more like a dad and it’s probably because I am a dad.
“You have a bunch of younger guys on the team. I kind of saw a goal of mine that I had, to change the sport and grow the sport, happening in front of me.
“I think it was the best and most enjoyable part of my career. I think people watching hopefully saw it in my face because I definitely think it was the happiest I’ve ever been. There was no better way to go out.”
By retiring, Phelps leaves behind a lasting legacy but also a sport that, much like athletics with Usain Bolt’s exit, is searching for the next great thing to fill the massive void left behind by its brightest star.
And naturally, those omnipresent records will be the benchmark, though Phelps hopes they’ll be broken sooner or later.
“A lot of people thought what I did was impossible. So if there’s a kid out there who’s truly willing to dream and dream as big as he can that will shock himself, anything is possible,” Phelps says. “If somebody does, great.”
Every athlete is different, but the greats often have competitive fires that can’t be extinguished. Phelps came out of retirement once. Why not again?
Nothing’s impossible, as Phelps himself says, but it’s evident in seeing and hearing him that his focus is now squarely on the next chapter.
“If you’re going to ask if I’m coming back, just forget it,” he says. “I did what I wanted to do and filled that ‘what if?’ For me, I’m very happy to be able to finish on my terms.”