Former American swimmer Michael Phelps, the most successful athlete of the Olympic Games, “travels around the world” to warn about athletes’ mental condition, a mission “far more important than winning a gold medal”, he says- in an interview with AFP.
At 37, the Baltimore “shark” has forged a new career away from the pools. “I would rather have the opportunity to save a life than win another gold medal,” he told AFP during his visit to the Demain le sport forum in Paris.
After years of hiding his depression, Phelps is dedicating his new life to preventing sports mental health. “Too many Olympic athletes have committed suicide. I don’t want to lose a single member of my Olympic family anymore,” he breathes.
Phelps began suffering from depression in 2004 while competing in the Athens Olympics. In Greece the American had already won eight medals, of which six gold, the beginning of a harvest that ended at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, with 28 medals including 23 titles.
– “I didn’t want to live” –
“Playing in competitions was my favorite thing. I was a shark, I smelled blood in the water and kept going,” he admits. But at the time, Michael Phelps feared that admitting what he was going through would be seen as “a sign of weakness and could give other competitors an advantage.”
“I went through a time when I didn’t want to live,” he admits.
Involved in the production of the documentary “The Weight of Gold” on the mental health of athletes, Phelps greets Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles for revealing their inner woes.
“I applaud Naomi. She expressed what she was going through on her social networks, in her own words. It’s not the easiest thing to do,” he explains.
“If you look at what happened with Simone Biles, she had to endure all this during one of the most important moments of her career,” adds the 37-year-old former swimmer.
“It shows how mental disorders come at unexpected times. It can happen like this,” he said, snapping his fingers.
“We need more people ready to open up and share their experience,” says the Baltimore “shark”.
– “Find the balance” –
Now the father of three boys aged six, four and three, Phelps has a life that “never ends” with his wife Nicole. “I travel the world, work with sponsors or give motivational speeches”.
“(Nicole) might tell you that there are days when I wake up and feel great, and the next day I might wake up and be completely different, so it’s really about finding the balance for me,” she breathes.
In addition to his lectures, Michael Phelps “looks for ways to be himself, authentic”. “I swim. We built a gym in our garage. I write a diary.”
Phelps retired in 2016 after a two-year career hiatus. “It allowed me to move on to the next chapter (of my life, ed) which is now focused on mental health.”
As for the possibility of starting a coaching career, Michael Phelps dismissed the idea, assuring that there was “no chance” that he was following in the footsteps of his former coach Bob Bowman.
However, he does not exclude the idea of having a role within the American team or the International Swimming Federation (Fina), but “not now”.
“A lot of things have to happen, there has to be a change.”
Away from the pools, Phelps nevertheless continues to follow the news on swimming and says he is in favor of an “open category” for transgender swimmers.
“I think there should be three classes: male, female and trans, to give everyone an equal opportunity to compete,” she explains.