xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Michael Phelps joins Olympians in sharing mental health struggles in HBO film: ‘None of us had normal childhoods'

Michael Phelps talked in circles, his thoughts spilling out faster than he could lasso them.

The retired Olympic swimmer has experienced this feeling often as he’s dredged up “all the things I stuffed down for 25 years” in preparation for a planned book and the release of “The Weight of Gold,” an HBO documentary set to debut at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Advertisement

Phelps, 35, executive produced and narrates the film, which tells the story of his and other Olympians’ struggles with mental health. Four years removed from his last competitive race, the Maryland native said that he’s just as “giddy” spilling his rawest feelings as he was whipping his arms in anticipation on the starting block. He’s also exasperated at the lack of progress he’s seen from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and other organizations in helping athletes through the mental and emotional pitfalls that come with competing at the highest level.

“These are people who truly should be taking this on,” he said on a call Monday. “It’s frustrating that we’re sitting here watching them do absolutely nothing.”

Advertisement

From the moment the Tokyo Olympics were postponed from 2020 to 2021, Phelps expressed grave concern about the mental-health fallout for athletes who’ve tailored every day of their lives to peaking for the Games.

“Our body is on that clock, and we know when those four years come, if you’re an Olympian, you’re ready to go into battle,” he said. “So you’re reprogramming absolutely everything. … It would make me go absolutely crazy.”

Phelps was the most exceptional of Olympians, winning a record 23 gold medals and remaining at the summit of his sport for four straight Games. But the film tells the story not of what set him apart but of the difficulties and anguishes he shares with others who threw their entire selves into the quest for medals.

These athletes, who include figure skater Sasha Cohen, snowboarder Shaun White and speed skater Apolo Ohno, make strikingly similar comments about how they narrowed their focus.

“Everything else in life was an obstacle that I had to push aside,” Cohen says, describing her devotion to skating. “It was like a compulsion. It was necessary.”

“None of us had normal childhoods,” Phelps says early in the film, directed by Brett Rapkin. “Now there are good sides to that and bad sides to that.”

Olympians describe the excruciating tension of preparing 10 years for a single race in which gold-medal glory and fourth-place anonymity will be separated by the time it takes to clap your hands twice. They talk of the warm embrace they felt upon returning home from the Games and the emptiness that quickly followed. Many have experienced financial strains and some have contemplated suicide.

“There was one question that hit me like a ton of bricks,” Phelps says in the film. “Who was I outside of a swimming pool?”

He tells the familiar story of how he curled into a ball and considered ending his life after his 2014 drunk-driving arrest in Baltimore. It was only during his subsequent 45-day stay at a rehabilitation facility that Phelps confronted deep doubts about his self-worth.

He and others describe how elite athletes are conditioned to brush past such mental and emotional wounds. “Being an Olympian is presented as this amazing thing, and they leave out all the side effects,” says figure skater Gracie Gold. “I think we all seem like everything is fine until we reach that one breaking point.”

The film features the late champion bobsledder Steven Holcomb, who was found dead in 2017 in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, with alcohol and prescription sleeping pills in his system. “I was worried about being seen as this fragile person,” Holcomb says in a haunting interview clip.

The film culminates with a call to action as Olympians describe how little help they’ve received from the same sporting infrastructure that built them up.

Advertisement

“I don’t think anyone jumped in to ask if we were OK,” Phelps says near the conclusion.

Asked if he’s seen any progress from the USOPC or other sport-specific organizations on helping athletes with mental health, Phelps said, “I, personally, have not.”

One of his closest friends, Allison Schmitt, is still competing, so he retains an intimate vantage on the process and does not like what he’s witnessed. He described how Olympians are still treated like products off an assembly line, their physical well-being of the utmost concern but their mental well-being an afterthought.

“I think there’s something to potentially happen, and I hope there is,” he said. “But I’m somebody who likes to see things, not hear things.”

A USOPC spokesman noted that the organization has a mental health task force, of which Schmitt is a member, and provides several avenues for athletes to seek help. The organization is also working with three independent mental health officers to create a long-term strategic plan.

“Having an honest conversation about the athlete experience, working to remove the stigma related to mental health and collaborating on needed support will move the conversation and the available services forward,” Bahati VanPelt, chief of athlete services for USOPC, said in a statement.

“As an organization, the USOPC recognized we can improve. In 2019, we took the important step of creating a dedicated athlete services division - separating athlete care and mental health services from high-performance - to differentiate these services and ensure athletes can access resources and assistance without concern or hesitation. We also created a mental health task force comprised of athletes and experts together to inform our work and help us improve athlete health and well-being. We are working to be a leader in this space, and our commitment is being realized through a broad expansion of services available to athletes and a promise to keep mental health at the forefront of our organizational focus.”

Phelps’ misgivings were reinforced by the stories Rapkin collected from other Olympians, most of whom the swimmer has known over the years.

“I was shocked just how similar our answers were,” he said. “It’s weird to see that our stories are so different, but they’re almost damn near identical.”

Phelps would not take any of his experiences back but added that knowing all he does, he would not want his three sons to become high-level swimmers.

“Honestly, in a perfect world, I’d say no,” he said. “I don’t want them to live in my footsteps.”

After years of organizing his life by practice times and the readings on stopwatches, Phelps remains an intense creature of habit. Given that, the uncertainty wrought by COVID-19 took him to dark places, even as he mined his memories and feelings for the documentary and upcoming book.

“Things haven’t been going great for me through it,” he said. “But I know that I’m not alone. One of the coolest things has been how much closer I’ve been able to get with my wife. Just like conversations, communicating, struggles — I’ve opened up so much more about things that I’ve been going through and things that she’s been going through. … I still go through streaks where I’m the most negative human being on the planet, and that’s just me being me. Yeah, it’s scary at times, but I also know the steps that I need to take when I start having a day like that. Whether it’s me talking to somebody, whether it’s me going to work out, whether it’s me going to jump into the swimming pool, I have a list of things I have to use to help me get through those.”

Phelps acknowledged that he does not have all the answers to helping Olympians through their mental struggles. But he’s become a true believer in the power of open dialogue on a subject many people still find discomforting. He recalled the grin that spread across his face as he listened to NBA star DeMar DeRozan detail his travails with mental health at a recent event.

Advertisement

“I just know how freeing it is,” Phelps said.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement