The most decorated Olympian talks about ‘not wanting to be alive.’
Michael Phelps has a heart of gold.
That’s why the most decorated Olympian in history is spending his retirement diving into mental health awareness. The 31-year-old was just named a board member of Medibio, an Australian company developing a diagnostic tool for depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental disorders.
“Not wanting to be alive is very scary, and I have felt it first hand,” Phelps told Moneyish, a year after his bombshell reveal that he’s long wrestled with mental health issues and substance abuse despite dominating the pool at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
One in 10 Americans experience depression, according to the National Institute of Health, and it’s something the 23-time gold medalist knows too much about.
“You build four years up into that moment, and that moment is short – it can be 10 seconds to 100 seconds,” he said. “You work as hard as you can, and put every ounce of energy you possibly have into trying to represent your country and potentially win a gold medal … and then the next day you’re done. That’s it. So you can get lost, and you can wander down potentially wrong life paths.”
Such as his September 2014 DUI arrest – his second DUI – when he was suspended from competing for six months. “I found that dark spot where I realized something needed to change, and I wanted to grab it by the horns and figure out what was going on with me, to get past it,” he said.
He spent 45 days in rehab at The Meadows in Arizona, and realized just asking for help was the most important step. “That was really the changing point for me,” he said, admitting that while his license was suspended for two months, “it was hard enough just asking a friend to take me to the grocery store.”
There’s a misconception that athletes are riding high on feel-good endorphins all of the time – when in fact, elite athletes are under tons of pressure. And while one in four college athletes show signs of depression, the NCAA reports that student athletes are actually less likely to seek help than non-athletes.
Phelps gets it. “I try to take on so much personally. As athletes, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to be big, macho, we can handle anything on our own,” he said.
So he’s really excited about his first-ever board member position, working to explore ways that technology can identify and treat mental health issues. Medibio CEO Jack Cosentino said in a statement that they are “thrilled” to have Phelps join the board to “raise substantial awareness of mental health challenges and the real, tangible solutions.”
Plus, a 2010 study suggested a celebrity board appointment can add 2% to the price of a company’s stock. When Oprah joined the Weight Watchers board in October 2015, after all, the brand’s stock initially rocketed 98% in midday trade.
Phelp’s Medibio position is so new, however, that he’s not even sure whether he’s being paid. “I actually don’t really fully know,” he laughed. “We’ve been chatting with Medibio for the last year, and it’s just very exciting to get everything rolling. I’m looking forward to being in meetings or being on calls, and talking about ways to help people understand that it’s OK to not be OK.”
He’s also working with his Michael Phelps Foundation, which teaches kids to swim and be water-safe, and encourages them to be active. And he was named a global ambassador for Colgate to teach water conservation – like turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth.
“I think I’m busier now that I’m retired than I was while swimming, which is the craziest part,” he said. “But I want more, being able to work harder on all of that, and building a brand.”
And he has waded into spending quality time with his wife Nicole and son, Boomer, who just turned one. “He’s already taken a couple of steps. He started saying ‘ball,’ so maybe he likes sports,” Phelps laughed, noting he’d love to just spend Father’s Day hanging out with him. “I’d like to play golf with him [when he’s older]. He’ll probably beat me!”
For now, Phelps is reaching for a new brass ring, which is helping those who don’t know how to ask for help themselves.
“I’ve gone through a pretty deep and dark place, so to just try and prevent as many people as we can from going down that same spiral is the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “I’m looking forward to helping save people’s lives.”
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