“I sent myself on a downward spiral. I think it was more of…of a sign than anything else. That I had to get something under control, whatever it was, I look back at that night and everything happened for a reason.” ~ Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps interview for NBC’s Today If – as he says – the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were Michael Phelps’ swan song, there could not be a more fitting goodbye. He was chosen to be a Captain of the American Olympic team and voted to be the United States’ flag bearer. As a competitor at the Games, he added five golds and one silver medal to his record tally of 28 Olympic medals—23 gold. To make it even more perfect, in attendance were his beautiful fiancé and their infant son. Make no mistake…Michael Phelps seems to have it all. But that’s not ALWAYS how it seemed his story would go. In fact, not too long ago, Phelps seemed on the verge of losing it all.
“…not my first lapse in judgement”
In September 2014, Phelps was arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence in Maryland, just five months after he ended his retirement to begin training for the 2016 Olympics. Phelps was pulled over for crossing double-lane lines and excessive speed – 84 mph in a 45 mph zone. After the stop, Phelps failed a series of standard field sobriety tests. This incident had a negative impact on his in-the-pool performance. USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, banned him from competing for six months and ruled that he would not be able to represent the United States at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships the following August. In their statement, USA Swimming, said, “The news regarding Michael Phelps and his actions are disappointing and unquestionably serious. We expect our athletes to conduct themselves responsibly in and out of the pool.” Without Phelps’ presence on the team, the American swimmers failed to reach the finals of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. This was not the first time that Phelps’ problematic substance abuse would cast him in an unfavorable light in the eyes of the public.
- In 2004, when he was just 19 years old, Phelps pled guilty to his first DUI. He was fined, placed on 18 months’ probation, and sentenced to community service – speaking at three area high schools about alcohol awareness.
About that incident, Phelps said, “I recognize the seriousness of this mistake. I’ve learned from this mistake, and will continue learning from this mistake for the rest of my life.”
- In 2009, pictures of Phelps using a marijuana bong at a South Carolina party were published. USA Swimming suspended him for three months, and one of his biggest sponsors – Kellogg’s – dropped him, saying his behavior was “not consistent” with their image.
USA Swimming said, “…we decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero.” When the pictures were released, Phelps responded, “I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment… For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”
Is Michael Phelps an Alcoholic?
A DUI in 2004…embarrassing drug use pictures in 2009…and a second DUI in 2014. While these aren’t necessarily indications of an out-of-control addiction, they do point to a pattern of disturbing behaviors. At the very least, Phelps admits to bouts of binge-drinking, the most common type of alcohol abuse. When Phelps was asked by NBC’s Matt Lauer if he was an alcoholic, his answer was surprisingly candid. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I know I probably have moments where I have gone off the deep end where I shouldn’t”
Phelps’ Second DUI Led to Some “Dark Places”
Just before he was to compete in the 2016 Olympics, Phelps met with NBC’s Bob Costas and discussed what it felt like in the days following his second DUI. “I took some wrong turns and ended up in some of the darkest places you could ever imagine… really not wanting to live. I was on a downward spiral and I was on the express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be… I really had to reach my absolute rock bottom to get a wake-up call. Those mornings of not wanting to be alive. I just decided that something needed to change.”
Phelps’ Support Team Comes Together
No one around Phelps could come out and plainly say that Phelps had a “drinking problem”, but everyone was concerned about his dangerous actions. His coach, Bob Bowman, said, “I had been living in fear that I was going to get a call that something had happened. Honestly, I thought the way he was going, he was going to kill himself…something like the DUI, but worse.” His support team began talking about the possibility of Phelps checking into an alcohol abuse rehab facility. His agent, Peter Carlisle, recalls, “He has a unique and challenging life, and he was clearly struggling. This was an opportunity for him to finally learn some of the tools he needed to deal with that life.” Like nearly everyone faced with the reality of a substance problem, Phelps was initially resistant to the idea. But as the consensus among gathered family members and friends became nearly unanimous, Phelps agreed to get help. Coach Bowman told him, “You CAN do it, and you Have to do it.”
Phelps Enters and Completes Rehab
The weekend after his second DUI arrest, Phelps checked into a private residential rehab for a six-week program. Before he left, he tweeted, “Swimming is a major part of my life, but right now, I need to focus my attention on me as an individual, and do the necessary work to learn from this experience and make better decisions in the future. Phelps said. After the initial shock of seeing a celebrity in their midst, everyone else in the facility just “opened up” because they were all there trying to tackle the same illness that was holding each of them back.
What Can the Rest of Us Learn from Michael Phelps’ Struggles?
As much of a legend Michael Phelps is in the swimming pool, his heroic personal journey OUTSIDE is just as inspiring. From his example, there are several things that we can learn –
- Substance abuse, can affect ANYONE – matter how successful.
- Recreational “binge-drinking” can trigger self-destructive and dangerous behaviors – even BEFORE an addiction has developed.
- Timely intervention, unwavering support from family and friends, and professional treatment are the biggest keys to long-lasting recovery.
- Drug and alcohol rehab DOES work.
And how is life after rehab going for Michael Phelps? “The life that I live now is a dream come true. I’m able to do what I love in the pool and out of the pool. I have a beautiful baby boy, a gorgeous fiancée, a great family. I’m closer to the people who like me and love me for me than I ever have been in my life – and I would never change that. I truly am living a dream come true.” If you or someone you care about is struggling with their own demons – alcoholism, prescription drug misuse, or the abuse of illegal drugs – understand that there is help and hope available.