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Swimmer Michael Phelps has won the most Olympic medals of any athlete. He has also struggled with his ...
2021-04-07 09:00:00

The Ups and Downs of the Dolphin
The Story of Michael Phelps

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
The Ups and Downs of the Dolphin
The Ups and Downs of the Dolphin

One can be in Olympic form and simultaneously be completely out of sorts. The story of the swimmer Michael Phelps is full of surprising twists and turns.

Read in 14 minutes

“There were days when I felt that my greatest achievement was just getting out of bed. Compared to this, winning gold medals was easy. Depression was beating me. In the end, I understood that I had to seek professional help. That I had to start talking, to beat this illness,” said Michael Phelps in 2018, during a conference about his mental health. He was speaking to an audience of specialists.

The audience looked at the tall, slender speaker, clothed in a light blue shirt and navy suit. In front of them stood the most titled Olympian of all time. The man who tamed the water. Winner of 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which were gold. Born in Baltimore, the swimmer whose individual medal record beats that of entire countries such as Nigeria, Portugal, Chile and Morocco. Jamaica, the world power in sprinting, has one less medal than Phelps. The Argentinians have two medals less than him after 120 years of competition. The Soviet gymnast, Larisa Latynina, who was competing in the 1950s and 1960s, holds second place on the medal table. She won 10 medals less (nine golds, five silver and four bronze). The most decorated sportsperson from Poland is Irena Szewińska, who holds seven Olympic medals; 21 less than the American swimmer.

Phelps had received all the honours; during the opening ceremony of his last Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, he carried the American flag. Swimming World magazine crowned him best swimmer of the year eight times. He was twice declared sportsman of the year by the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport; and the American Sports Illustrated awarded him the same honour once. In 2004, one of the streets of his home city, Baltimore, was named after him. During the height of his glory, he had lucrative sponsorship contracts that brought in $12 million a year. On top of this, there was prize money and grants. Phelps’s net worth today is estimated to be $80 million. In 2016, in a secret ceremony, he married the former Miss California, Nicole Johnson. They have three sons; Boomer, Beckett and Maverick.

And yet, in 2012, just after the London Olympics, the American tried to take his own life. “I wanted to disappear from the world of sport, stop racing… I wanted to cease to exist,” he said in a quavering voice during another conference. In Chicago, CNN’s political commentator and publicist, David Axelrod, held a live interview with him. The Olympian admitted that it got to the stage when he didn’t come out of his room for several days; he ate nothing, barely slept. Then he turned for help. He was locked up in a clinic. During his interview with Axelrod, he told of how he shook with fear the first time he went for therapy. “But I had to find out what was going on with me.”

A childhood without bliss

Phelps was born in 1985. His mother, Debbie, worked as a teacher. His father, Fred, was a talented amateur sportsman – good enough that he even took part in trials for the Washington Redskins American Football squad, but he never signed a professional contract and ended up joining the police. Even at pre-school, his teacher told Debbie that Michael had enormous problems concentrating, was unable to sit still and that “it will be difficult for him to make anything of himself with that level of distraction.” Much later, when he was at primary school, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

His parents were constantly arguing and the young Michael, left to his own devices (as he wrote years later in his biography), wouldn’t look people in the eye and was easily stressed. On the one hand, he desperately wanted attention but, on the other, he was embarrassed by everything – most of all his sticking out ears, for which he had been the subject of cruel teasing so typical among children of that age. The family rows ended first in separation (1992) and, two years later, in divorce. The boy was nine years old when his parents finally and formally divorced. He and his two older sisters remained in the care of their mother.

Today, he doesn’t hide the fact that he was very upset by the divorce and that it was a devastating blow when his father remarried six years later. By that time, Phelps had become the youngest American since 1932 to compete in the Olympic Games. In Sydney, the 15-year-old unexpectedly made it into the final of the 200m butterfly, coming fifth, yet he couldn’t really enjoy his success. He couldn’t concentrate during the races, because his father and new wife had appeared in the stands.

Phelps admits in his biography that, as a child, he came up with all sorts of stories to make his contemporaries accept him and congratulate him. In school, he would put his hand up to answer a question, even if he didn’t have any idea about the subject and knew perfectly well that he knew nothing. However, the need to shine and be accepted was stronger. For a school talent show he signed up for a juggling course, although he’d never tried it before. He believed that his clowning around would bring him popularity. Usually, however, it ended with yet more mockery.

But this isn’t a story about how a sensitive child with ADHD jumped into the water and found his element. At least, not yet. At first, it was the sisters of the boy (who would go on to set 39 world records) who were training swimming, while mum Debbie was looking for whatever kind of activity she could find for her over-energetic child. However, little Michael didn’t want to go swimming. “You would think that on the first day I hit the water I just sort of turned into a dolphin and never wanted to leave the pool. No way. I hated it. We’re talking screaming, kicking, fit-throwing, goggle-tossing hate,” is how Phelps describes his early experience with water in his biography Beneath the Surface. However, when he finally conquered his fear and learned to swim properly, he found his peace in the water.

Nothing human…

“[…] once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free. It was like I had this new toy that my sisters enjoyed all this time. I went to the pool every day and it usually took a while to get me to leave,” Phelps writes in Beneath the Surface. When he was 11, he met the trainer Bob Bowman for the first time. A tough, gruff man who most athletes disliked because of his regime of near military discipline. Yet in Bowman, Michael found a replacement for the father who had abandoned the family. He spent his whole career under Bob’s watchful eye, even though they argued more than once. Phelps could never imagine working with anyone else. And in 2016, the USA Federation even appointed Bowman as chief trainer of the US team for the Olympics. One year earlier, he had taken up a coaching post at the University of Arizona. Phelps followed him to Phoenix and also settled there after retiring from competition two years later.

Unfortunately, Bowman wasn’t just famous for his military drill, but also for his repellent, sexist recordings left on the voicemail of Caroline Burckle, the freestyle relay bronze medalist in Beijing in 2008. But he managed to admit this and apologize. Could it be that Phelps had more understanding for his coach and patron because he himself had made mistakes? In November 2004, three months after the Athens Olympics at which he had joined the pantheon of America’s greatest sportsmen with four individual golds and two relays, he was caught driving under the influence. Five years later, the tabloids published a photo of him with a water pipe – a so-call bong – used to smoke cannabis, and Phelps lost several sponsorship contracts, including with Kellogg’s, the breakfast cereal producer. The American Swimming Federation suspended him from competition for three months. He got exactly the same punishment, only twice as long, in 2014, when he was once again arrested for drink driving, as well as for breaking the speed limit.

On each occasion, Phelps apologized. He accepted the court sentences, including police supervision, but also added his own penances: he provided generous financial support to a wide variety of foundations, signed up for programmes warning against drug abuse (in South Carolina, recreational marijuana is still illegal today), he joined awareness campaigns about the danger and stupidity of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, it is only recently that he disclosed that, after his second arrest, he had again had suicidal thoughts. “I thought that if I disappeared, everything would be easier. I felt it would be better if I ceased to exist. The more time I spent thinking about this, however, the more I felt that I wanted to find a different way out of the situation. I wondered if someone could help me; I wanted to see if I could do more.”

Today Phelps openly admits that marijuana and alcohol were a form of escapism for him, which he only understood after undergoing therapy, where he worked through his depression and childhood trauma with specialists. “I was running away from something. I found relief in drugs. From my side it was an attempt at self-treatment. Basically, I was under the influence every day,” he said in 2018.

Drawing from the archives (no. 565/1956)
Drawing from the archives (no. 565/1956)

Once again, he returned to a locked clinic – this time in Arizona. His suicidal thoughts subsided, but the American was not sure if he would ever be able to return to high level sport. Would he be able to summon up sufficient motivation to put himself through the murderous training programme? Because the way that Phelps, under the watchful eye of Bowman, used to attain his form (along with a bag of medals) can only be described in one word: backbreaking.

Heavy timetable

Training began at 6.30am in the morning, which meant getting up half an hour earlier. Phelps swam eight miles every day. He spent six hours a day, six days a week in the pool. On top of this, there were three training sessions a week in the gym (of three hours each), plus an hour of stretching. When he was a teenager, for five years, day after day, he entered the water. 1800 days without a break – including Christmas, birthdays and Thanksgiving. He and Bowman, who of course had to be there for the sessions, worked out that if he swam for a year, Sundays included, he would ensure he’d done 50 training sessions more than his competitors. Over five years, that equated to 250 extra training sessions, which his rivals would be unable to make up.

Legends circulate about how much he ate when he was at his very best. They say he hoovered up over 12,000 calories each day, because that’s how much he burned in the pool. It is also three times the calories needed by the statistically-average adult male. In reality, he consumed slightly fewer calories than this, but it is true that, with such a training regime, he was able to burn everything he threw down himself. This is why he never had to follow any diet.

According to Bowman, Phelps’s secret was that he learned to feel comfortable when he wasn’t. “There is no gain without pain,” said the architect of Michael’s success during a lecture to first year students at the University of Arizona. “Michael perfected every detail. He became totally automatic so that, under pressure, he could do what he needed to do without thinking about it. In order to reach this level, you have to be really tough on yourself.”

And at the highest level, it is the details that make the difference. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in the 100m butterfly final, Phelps beat his rival by one hundredth of a second. He was neck and neck with Milorad Čavić, but it was the American who first touched the plate that stopped the clock. This happened because, with his final stroke, he had his hand stretched out while the Serb’s was slightly bent, as is usual during every other stroke of the race. Thanks to this, Phelps broke Mark Spitz’s seemingly unbreakable record and won his seventh gold of the games. One day later, he rewrote Olympic history when he won his eighth gold medal (the 4x100m medley). Yet it wouldn’t have happened but for that outstretched hand. As it later turned out, he had relentlessly practised this with his coach, since the age of 12.

Despite depression and ADHD, Phelps was extraordinarily well-prepared psychologically and he spent an enormous amount of time on mental training. One of Bowman’s techniques was to make his swimmers visualize the perfect swim. He wanted them, through total concentration, to imagine every detail down to the smallest, so that they ‘could smell the chlorine’. “The brain isn’t able to distinguish between detailed visualization and reality,” he explained to his swimmers. Phelps mastered this method to such an extent that he had recurring dreams in which every movement was perfect; each stroke of the arm through the water, ideal; every kick, perfection.

Throughout his career he set himself the goals he wanted to achieve. At first, when he was still a child, it was more about making notes along the lines of ‘Make it into the USA squad’, or ‘Go to the Olympic Games’, but, in time, he started to focus on winning over a given distance. They had to be ambitious but achievable goals. And every day he looked at them and verified them.

There are many talented sportsmen who work incredibly hard and dedicate their lives to achieving their goals, and who train their minds as well as their bodies. However, Phelps was also a physical phenomenon. His body was made for swimming. The American is 193-centimetres tall. In a regular adult man, the span of his outstretched arms is more or less the same as his height – we need only think of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch of Vitruvian Man in which the Italian painter and inventor shows the proportions of the body. However, Phelps has an arm span a full 10 centimetres greater than his height, at 203 centimetres.

The American has also been diagnosed with joint hypermobility. This condition means he has greater scope for movement in his joints, resulting from abnormalities in the structure of the connective tissue. Phelps’ feet – UK size 13 (European size 48) – bend 15 degrees more than the feet of the average man. In other words, they become flippers. The media have tried to explain the phenomenon of the 28-time Olympic medallist through the disproportion of his body – Phelps has a long torso and strong, but surprisingly short legs for someone of his height. Thanks to this, his kicks in the water are stronger and more efficient and his legs cause less drag in the water. But not all specialists and scientists agree with the theory that it was the American’s out of proportion body that gave him such a great advantage. According to other rumours, Phelps produces half the lactic acid of his rivals, which means that his muscles are better oxygenated. He also gets less tired and recovers more quickly. His lungs are a phenomenon, too. Their 12-litre capacity is a freak of nature that almost never occurs – the average adult male has about 4.5 litres. Sportsmen can get to around six to eight litres through training.

In the dark

At his peak, Phelps could swim from memory. During the Beijing 200m final, something happened to the dolphin that shouldn’t have. The American’s goggles started to leak. After completing his first length of the pool – 50m – they were completely full of water. Phelps had to complete a further three lengths and make two turns without seeing a thing. But over the years, the water and the pool had become his natural environment. He therefore knew – felt, even – exactly where he was and how many strokes he needed to do before making a turn, and when to accelerate and start his finish. Today, watching a recording of that race, no spectator would have a clue that anything was amiss. The American wins by a comfortable margin. It is only during the finish that we see how Phelps rips off his hat and goggles and, instead of celebrating his gold medal win, looks with disgust and fury at his equipment, not a shadow of a smile on his face.

Yet the man who had a body created for swimming, who above all wanted to win, who was programmed for victory, was simultaneously being destroyed by his passion. He ended his career the first time after the London Olympics in 2012. However, he returned two years later in order to qualify again for Rio de Janeiro. “As often as I went to the big competitions, the World Championships or Olympics, I wanted to go home with medals,” he said in his interview with Axelrod. “Every time I came back from competitions, I was seriously depressed. Every autumn after the Olympics was an incredible low.”

Phelps flirted with the idea of making another comeback to compete in Tokyo. He’s only 35, after all, and still has seven world records. As he says himself, he is in much better form than he was in 2014 when he first came out of retirement. Back then, he had such a serious bout of depression that he hardly trained. Today, he still gets up before dawn and goes for a three-hour training session: either to the gym or to swim. “Water is still the place where I find peace, where thoughts can flow freely and slowly through my head. But I don’t want to race any longer,” he said in one of his interviews.

He claims that he only does butterfly now when his son Boomer asks him to, by mimicking the circular movements of the arms over his head. “Then I can do a few lengths,” he smiles.

Today, the American is the face of many organizations, programmes and campaigns about mental health. When he was at his peak, very few people were aware of his bouts of anxiety and depression. Now he teaches others not to repeat his mistakes; not to keep it all inside, to have the courage to talk about their feelings. “Communication is something I am still learning. I discovered it only once I turned 30, but better late than never,” said Phelps, adding, “I never thought that people would want to listen to me. It is incredible that my voice has some impact. After my lectures, people begin to understand that talking about one’s feelings is good, that it is OK not to feel OK, and that one can deal with mental health problems.”

These days he has less and less difficulties with communicating. Several months ago, the 23-times Olympic champion and 34-times World Champion explained in an interview that the pandemic has stolen his joy in life and that once again he is going through a serious episode of depression. He underlined that when he is going through this, he is not a particularly good father or husband. He gets easily irritated and experiences relapses of anxiety. But at the same time, he declared that he had gone back again to specialists for help and encourages all others who are also frightened by the isolation and the threat of the virus to do the same.

During his conversation with Axelrod, Phelps said: “I am extraordinarily grateful, that I didn’t take my own life.” That this extraordinary athlete is still with us, we can all be grateful, too.


Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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