As Michael Phelps prepares for his fifth and final Olympics in Rio, he’s as happy as he has ever been. He’s engaged to Nicole Johnson and he’s a new father, as Boomer Phelps was born 12 weeks ago. You can see the joy on his face.
The journey Phelps took to get here wasn’t easy, though. In a taped, incredibly candid NBC interview with Bob Costas, Phelps opened up about his struggles since entering the spotlight as a 15-year-old in the 2000 Olympics, and especially the previous four years of his life, where he sunk as low as he ever had.
Becoming a sensation and being viewed as a swimming prodigy from such an early age gave Phelps an identity. Unfortunately, Phelps struggled to break free of his public perception.
"For so long, I looked at myself as literally a kid who was talented who would go up and down the pool," Phelps told Costas. "That’s it. Nothing else. Very few people knew who I really was."
Phelps was young after his first two Olympics, and he constantly stayed in the pool. His troubles started after his flawless 2008 Beijing performance, competing in eight events and winning gold eight times. After 2008, Phelps began spending more time away from swimming, and more time unsure of who he was as a person.
Leading into the 2012 Olympics, Phelps admitted he barely prepared. He skipped practices and argued with coaches, and when he did make it to the pool, he said he wasn’t even doing it the right way.
"I just didn’t care," Phelps said.
Phelps won four gold medals and two silvers in London that year. For him, that was a disappointment. He announced his retirement from swimming, and that sent him spiraling down into the darkest moments of his life.
After London, Phelps talked how he went six straight months without working out once. His weight ballooned from 187 pounds to nearly 230, the largest he had ever been. "You couldn’t find an ab," Phelps said. His substance abuse grew during this period, too.
"I still remember the days, not wanting to see anybody, not wanting to talk to anybody, really not wanting to live," Phelps said. "I was on an express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be."
When asked, Phelps said he never seriously contemplated suicide, although there were times where the thought came into his mind.
"There were thoughts about, like how would I do it, but I knew I never would, because I knew I would hurt so many people, me included," he said.
It culminated in a drunk driving arrest in Sept. 30, 2014 — Phelps was going 84 mph in a 45 mph zone and testing almost double the legal alcohol limit — an arrest that led Phelps to rehab and eventually to getting his life back together. Phelps described entering the rehab facility as the "most scared I’ve ever been," but looking back, he was thankful for the way it changed his outlook on life. Phelps said he hasn’t consumed any alcohol since Oct. 4, 2014.
"I can probably say I’m thankful for that night," said Phelps, describing his DUI. "Because who knows where I would have been if I had got home safely that night."
Phelps made the decision to compete in one final Olympics at age 31. Already the most decorated Olympian of all time, Phelps will compete in three individual events: the 100m butterfly, the 200m butterfly and the 200m individual medley, with a real chance to win all three. He’ll also join Team USA in the 4x100-meter freestyle.
Many athletes fall adrift when their life of sports comes to a close. Phelps fell off harder than most. To see himself back in the pool one final time was never about adding three more medals to his current treasure chest. It was about proving he was still Michael Phelps.