A little while back, we wrote an article on famous people in recovery in which we mentioned a number of athletes. One of the most prominent names on this list was Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Many knew that he had smoked marijuana and that he had experienced a couple of run-ins with the law while drinking behind the wheel, but these situations are not exclusive to those with addiction. On the surface, he appeared to be a man who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But a man’s public appearance can often be steeped in murky waters.
Such was the case with Michael Phelps. As it turns out, Phelps was struggling with something much darker than he had originally been willing to admit. Now that he has gone public with this information, we’d like to make him the subject of our next celebrity profile. Following the same format as our articles on Amy Winehouse, Ronda Rousey, and Heath Ledger, we will start by simply discussing the achievements for which Michael Phelps is best known. We will then discuss his struggles with addiction, ending with the lessons his story may teach us.
Swimming His Way to Stardom
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history, with a total of 22 medals—18 of which are gold. He is a natural-born swimmer, but he didn’t always know that he was going to do it professionally. Born June 30, 1985, in Towson, Maryland, Phelps only began swimming at the age of 7 because he needed a way to focus his incredibly high levels of energy. It wasn’t until years later that the source of this energy was discovered to be attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
This new knowledge did not hurt his love of swimming. The young Michael Phelps won a national record for his age bracket at the unbelievable age of 10, and he would continue to set records in subsequent years. At the age of 15, Phelps qualified for the 2000 Summer Olympics. In 68 years up to that point, no male as young as him had joined the United States Olympic swim team. The 15-year-old Phelps managed to make it all the way to the finals, but ultimately failed to win a medal. Even so, his talent was established when he finished the 200-meter butterfly in fifth place.
Having spent a few years setting national records, Michael Phelps set his first world record at the 2001 World Aquatics Championships. He was the youngest male swimmer to ever set a world record, again showing his excellence in the 200-meter butterfly. He then broke his own record to become a world champion in Fukuoka, Japan. He continued to dazzle spectators over the next few years. His established an American record in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2002 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships at Fort Lauderdale before willing three gold medals (and two silver medals) in Yokohama. He set three world records at the 2003 World Aquatics Championships, this time winning four gold medals in addition to his two silvers.
In 2004, Michael Phelps began to establish himself as an Olympian. At the Summer Olympics in Athens that year, he won six gold medals and two bronzes. In the process, he set two world records, two national records, and three Olympic records. He won five gold medals at the next year’s World Aquatics Championships, another five at the 2006 Pan Pacific (with another three world records), and a total of seven gold medals with five world records at the 2007 World Aquatics.
The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing saw Michael Phelps at his best. He won a total of eight gold medals. One of them established a new Olympic record, while each of the remaining seven set a new world record in their specific categories. His Olympic performance itself established an all-time record for the most gold medals in a single session of the Olympic Games. No one had won as many as seven since Mark Spitz in 1972. Ian Thorpe, the youngest world record-setter before Phelps and one of Phelps’ personal idols, had previously said it couldn’t be done. But much as he had in previous years, Phelps was raising the bar for swimmers everywhere.
After that, Phelps was practically a household name. He even hosted SNL that September, an honor not usually reserved for athletes without a high level of name recognition. But it seemed as if he had peaked. He won five gold medals each at the 2009 World Aquatics and 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, but the former event was the last time he would set a world record. He set four of them that year, but Michael Phelps was to set no records of any sort in the years following. He dropped down to four gold medals each in the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and then he briefly retired.
Michael Phelps came out of retirement in 2014, winning three gold medals and two silvers at the Pan Pacific Championships. He even set a championship record in the 4×100 meter medley. In 2015, he won three gold medals at the 2015 US National Championships. What we’ve recently seen of him is not the Phelps with which we are familiar, but there’s something to be said for a man who appears to be past his prime when he only wins three gold medals instead of half a dozen. A consistent medalist and record-setter for many years, Michael Phelps will always be one of the greatest names in the sport of men’s swimming.
Kicking Beneath the Surface
Over the years, it has surfaced that substance abuse was lurking in the background throughout some of Phelps’ greatest achievements. Now, while we are here to talk about addiction and recovery, we should state that there is some concern with formally referring to Michael Phelps as an addict. We have not been able to find a source in which he uses the word himself, and we are not in the business of committing libel against beloved athletes. Nonetheless, Phelps has encountered his fair share of controversies due to drugs and alcohol.
It’s important to remember that Michael Phelps began his rise to prominence as a teenager. And as we have discussed in our analysis of addiction demographics, teenagers are prone to experimentation. At the age of 19, Phelps attended a party with several college students. He made the unwise decision to drive himself home, and he was pulled over for drunk driving. In an interview with Matt Lauer, Phelps expressed contrition for letting his fans down. When Lauer asked him if he had an alcohol problem, Phelps responded that the arrest was “an isolated incident.”
The issue was of little consequence to his career. Phelps had already become an Olympic gold medalist, and he only received a year and a half of probation in addition to a $250 fine. He also agreed to attend a meeting of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and speak about his experience to high school students. Aside from that, he was able to keep going strong. He was briefly accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs during the 2008 Olympics, but Phelps agreed to rigorous testing and passed with flying colors. It seemed as if the drunk driving incident was as isolated as he claimed.
In 2009, however, controversy arose again. A photo of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana was published, and Phelps came forward to confirm its authenticity. Kellogg allowed their sponsorship of the young Olympian to expire without renewal, and Phelps was suspended from USA Swimming for three months. Much as his previous drunk driving incident had occurred at a college party, the photo of Phelps smoking a marijuana pipe was talking at the University of South Carolina. There was one other similarity—while Phelps apologized in all sincerity, he simply referred to the incident as a bad judgment call and did not confess to any regularity of substance abuse.
At this point, most people were still not ready to believe that Phelps had any sort of problem with drugs or alcohol. Seth Meyers of SNL fame even defended Michael Phelps on Weekend Update, coming down hard on Kellogg, USA Swimming, and the anonymous partygoer who had snapped the picture. While Meyers’ rant was certainly comical, there was little doubt that he was supportive of Phelps. He even accused USA Swimming of hypocrisy, as they had allegedly suspended him in order to send a strong message yet had seemingly timed his suspension so as not to interfere with any particularly major events.
Whether or not Meyers was accurate in his assessment of Phelps’ suspension, USA Swimming would eventually come down on him a bit harder. This occurred in 2014, right after Phelps had come out of retirement. That September, Phelps was once again arrested for driving while intoxicated. This time, USA Swimming suspended Phelps for twice as long and did not allow him to participate in the 2015 World Aquatics Championships (which is why he participated in the US National that year instead). Once again, Michael Phelps pled guilty. He was originally sentenced to a year in prison, but was able to suspend his sentence with eighteen months of probation.
After his 2014 arrest, it was reported that Michael Phelps had admitted to having a problem with alcohol. We have found no quote in which he actually uses these words; however, Phelps did appear more willing to examine the possibility this time around, as evidenced by his 45-day stay in an Arizona rehab facility. He also discussed his feelings after receiving his second DUI, saying that he was “in a really dark place” and “not wanting to be alive anymore.”
Today, Michael Phelps appears to be in a much better place. He is currently planning to participate in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, although he has stated that he will be officially retiring as an Olympian before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Addicted or not, he can’t compete forever. He simply hopes that everything he has learned from his past transgressions will allow him to live a happier life and to end his career on a positive note.
Coming Up for Air
The message we stand to glean from the story of Michael Phelps has the potential to change drastically, depending upon whether we assume that he was struggling with alcoholism or simply the embarrassment of a few isolated incidents. It all comes down to the statement that he didn’t want to be alive anymore. As addicts and alcoholics, many of us have found ourselves drowning in a sea of depression, struggling to come up for air. We may be able to tread water from time to time, but only a solid recovery program is able to keep us from sinking. Many of us dive off into the deep end entirely, succumbing to overdose or suicidal ideation.
Even if we assume that these were isolated incidents, and that Phelps’ original statements on the matter were not made out of utter denial, there is still a lesson to be learned. Actions have consequences. When we abuse illicit substances, our inhibitions are impaired and we are prone to reckless actions such as driving under the influence. This can put us in a world of legal trouble, even if it is our first time drinking or using drugs. Occasionally, first-time users have even lost their lives due to overdose or mere recklessness. In the case of Michael Phelps, he risked his career and sent a potentially dangerous message to his fans that we can use drugs and still reach great heights of success. For a very rare few, this is sometimes the case; however, to assume that this is a normal occurrence would be a grave mistake.
Most of us do not enter recovery simply to quit using. There is usually a tipping point. A “rock bottom,” if you will. Since all we knew of Michael Phelps was his success as a swimmer, we could not see the signs of addiction that would spur many to recommend treatment. It took two drunk driving incidents, and it is indeed fortunate that neither of these were as bad as they could have been. And since we can assume that Phelps probably attended more than three parties over the course of ten years, there is no telling how many other potential incidents occurred.
It is also important to remember that Michael Phelps was quite young when he began his foray into alcohol and marijuana. This is the case with many users, and many of us are hooked before we are truly old or experienced enough to understand the consequences of such life choices. Phelps was at something of an advantage, in that his career began even younger than his substance abuse. He was likely something of a functioning addict, able to control his use when preparing for an event but unable to control his actions once he started using again.
The truth is, we do not know. Despite his contrition, Michael Phelps has always been a bit guarded when discussing the issue. However, now that he appears to have admitted to having a problem, he stands to turn things around in a big way. Any one of us can do the same, the moment we look ourselves in the mirror and realize that we have not been living the life we wanted, that we are not the best versions of ourselves that we can be. All it takes is a deep breath, followed by nine simple words:
“My name is ______, and I am an alcoholic.”
(Banner image: Paolo Bona/Shutterstock)