Michael Phelps is retired—sort of.
He’s adamant that his competitive-swimming days are behind him, so all you mermen out there with an eye on 2020 can rest easy. But the 23-time gold medal winner, a man Sports Illustrated named the “Greatest Olympian of All Time,” has been channeling his competitive energy into a variety of other areas (he’s only 32 after all). There’s golf, though he’s “not very good”; daily Peloton rides; and the occasional contest with his wife, former beauty queen Nicole Johnson.
“I can channel it into business,” he says. “I’m learning with the whole transition, but I’m able to learn better than I was in 2012. In 2012, I just wanted to be away from everything, and now I have a better mind-set of where I want to go.”
Phelps has been discussing 2012 a lot lately. It’s when, following his first retirement, he says he hit rock bottom, previously telling The Daily Beast, “I was locked in my room for three-to-five days, not eating, not wanting to talk to anybody, and just wanting to be alone. I didn’t want to live.” So he got help, and since then, has not only turned his outlook around but also transformed into perhaps the most high-profile advocate for athlete mental health, participating in the documentary Angst and the Kennedy Forum mental-health conference in January.
The sports legend formerly known as The Flying Fish is also entering his second year as a brand ambassador for Colgate’s water-conservation campaign, with Phelps encouraging the 42 percent of Americans who leave the faucet on while brushing to shut it off. The brand’s also created a “Turn Off the Faucet” drain sticker for sinks, revealing the message when water hits it.
To mark the coming Earth Day, The Daily Beast sat down with (an in-shape) Phelps at a hotel suite in New York to discuss his post-retirement life and the state of the world.
So… you never have to pay for toothpaste again.
I know! It’s great. [Laughs]
This does seem like a natural fit—the greatest swimmer ever and water conservation.
For me, it’s not about just spending so much time in the water but understanding how important it is. It’s such a valuable resource that we all need on an everyday basis. It’s crazy to think about some of the small facts: If you leave the water running, you’re wasting 64 glasses of water—or four gallons of water. It’s common sense to realize that you should not be leaving the water running the entire time. It’s kind of fun with the sticker to be able to put it on the stopper and it tells you when to turn the water off. I think it’s really cool for kids to be able to see something like that because then they can always have that image in their mind. And I’ve already had so many people come up to me in the street or in airports and say, “When I brush my teeth, I picture you telling me to turn the faucet off,” so it’s working.
It really is something we all take for granted.
Yeah. If you just make that conscious effort to turn the faucet off, it’s gonna be so much better for all the generations to come. And for me, with my son Boomer now being almost 2, he’s just a sponge.
Congratulations on your two-month-old boy, by the way. Are you getting any sleep?
Thanks, man. No, I don’t sleep at all. It’s all right. It’s good. [Laughs]
Me and my little brother are two years apart. It’s a good gap.
I love it. I’m pumped. I can’t wait to get to the point where they’re just roughhousing all the time. We wanted a baby boy first, and we were blessed with another baby boy, so we’re good.
I always find it interesting when these hulking athletes have a trio of girls.
Like The Rock? Oh my god, it’s so funny. I know, right? I thought we were going to have all girls, and I think we want a girl and we’d love to have a girl. Now we’ve got the boys too to help protect [her].
On the topic of water, there’s also the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has unfortunately largely disappeared from the headlines. And there’s this Nestle plant bottling water almost for free there while the people in Flint are either paying outrageous fees for allegedly clean water or aren’t getting water at all. It’s a terrible situation.
It has left the headlines, and it came up not long ago. It’s something that we have to be able to resolve and find a way to make it all work. It’s the same thing in South Africa, too. All these things are going on, so why can’t people take water conservation seriously? So many people don’t have it. And how long will it be before the rest of the world is having the same problem? It’s a little habit, and with these problems that are going on right now, it’s a perfect time for people to be able to jump on, support, and help in any way. Hopefully we can use what’s going on now to change the future.
Hopefully. How is retired life treating you? And are you really retired?
I am. I’m retired from the sport but I stay busy. It’s fun for me, honestly. If I could go back and script it up a perfect way, this is how it would be: being able to continue to do stuff that I’m passionate about and enjoy. To be able just to talk about my life—whether it’s how important water is, teaching kids to be water-safe, and mental health—these are all things that have been a part of my life since the start, so it’s easy for me to talk and to explain the importance of all three. For me, talking about my struggles with mental health is easy because it’s my life, and I’m OK with it.
We spoke about mental health not too long ago, and you recently participated in the Kennedy Forum’s mental-health conference in January. What was that like?
The more I talk about it, the easier it is—and that’s something that I think is the case for a lot of people who go through the things I’ve gone through. Being able to open up and talk to somebody, whether it’s with a therapist or someone you love, is going to make a huge difference. Communication helps, and it’s something that’s saved my life. Being able to have these tools that I was able to learn and gain from going to treatment helped me to survive every day. Still, there are probably going to be times in the future where I become depressed or unhappy or have anxiety, but now I’m able to have the tools to be able to get through that, to be able to get stronger, and to be able to push through those things. Hopefully I’m able to help others, too. If I can help save a life, that’s bigger to me than sports; to be able to have an impact on the world is way better to me than winning a gold medal.
There’s always been this historical resistance—on the part of men, in particular—to seek therapy.
Sure. And trust me, it wasn’t something that I really enjoyed in the beginning either. I didn’t want to sit and chat for an hour or whatever it was, but I also wanted to get better, to understand what was going on with me, and to try to take a different road besides taking my life. For me, I was excited to take that road because it was different and it was scary. And it did save my life. I like who I am now and I don’t just look at myself as a swimmer anymore.
I did a meditation recently and went back to my inner child, and looked at moments and memories that I’d basically forgotten, and I was just sitting there and thinking, “Why did I go back to that? Why did I go there?” and I thought, maybe it’s showing me where I came from and where I am today, and the journey it took me to get from there to here. It’s interesting for me to look at that stuff, move forward, and continue to grow and get better.
Is that something you do often, meditation?
It’s the first time I’d done it in a long time. I met somebody who loves it and does it a ton, and him and his wife shared their meditation ritual with me. It’s nice to have that peace and quiet to yourself and letting your mind and body go wherever it goes. I truly believe there’s some power behind it, and it was interesting to go through those memories again. I’m always the one asking, “Why? Why was this brought up? Why was that picture there?” So now it’s me trying to go through this process and understand, “Maybe there’s something else I need to uncover? Maybe there’s another family member I need to talk to?” That’s where my mind is running now, which is kind of fun.
Is it easier for you to self-analyze now that you’re removed from the crucible of competition?
I think it’s easier now because I’m allowing myself to. I’m in a better mental state now than I ever was before, so I think that’s why I’m giving myself the opportunity. I’m at peace with who I am.
The conversation of mental health in sports—a conversation you helped start—has now traveled to the NBA, with Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, and others coming forward to discuss their own struggles with mental health.
The Rock, too.
Him too. It’s interesting because I grew up watching a lot of pro ball, and someone like that would have historically been perceived as “difficult” or “causing problems in the locker room” when there could be a lot more going on underneath the surface.
Everything was always brushed under the rug. That’s how it always was. There’s such a huge stigma around it, and in my opinion it’s gone down a lot. People have helped destigmatize this by opening up and talking about it, and I truly do believe that it will change people’s lives if it hasn’t already. You’ll probably see more and more people talking about it.
Mariah Carey came forward just the other day to reveal her struggles with bipolar disorder.
Yeah. The thing is: We’re human. That’s it. We’re human beings just like everybody else. We’re no different than anybody walking around in New York City. We all have everyday struggles; we all go through ups and downs. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, who we are, where we’ve been, how much money we have—we’re normal people. I’m so happy to see a group of other people being able to stand up and talk about it, because we do have a voice and we can help so many other people.
I know you’ve consulted with some famous athletes (Tiger Woods, etc.) who were going through problems. Is that something you’d like to do professionally?
I’ve had a handful of people that have been like, “You should do that.” I’ve had a couple of friends and a couple of Olympians who’ve just fired questions off and asked some things, and I have no problem doing that. Whenever I have time, I’m willing to talk. I think that’s something that’s fun for me—and it doesn’t only help them, it helps me too. To be able to share each other’s stories, talk about different ideas, and talk about stuff we’re going through in life helps us both grow. I was just talking to a Winter Olympian who was going through the same kind of thing.
Was it Shaun White?
[Laughs] I’m not gonna say. But we are all alike, and we do have so many things in common—there’s a reason why we get to where we are. It’s unfortunate to see so many athletes, especially Olympians, fall into a depression. Seventy to 75 percent of Olympians—probably higher—go through it, and nobody’s talking about it, and nobody wants to talk about it. We’ve got to do something about it, and that’s what we’re trying to do now: to be able to make sure that everyone can get the help they want or desire.
Do you think about greatness at all, and how one achieves it? There’s the Gladwellian 10,000 hours theory.
It makes sense. Really, what made me able to get to where I was… Everybody wants to know what the secret is, but there is none. You work hard and you don’t give up. If something is in your way, you find a way around it. That’s really all I did. I was someone who was always driven by the desire to win. I hated to lose more than I wanted to win. As a kid, I used to throw temper tantrums on the pool deck if I’d lose—I’d launch my goggles and get super pissed off. But I learned to channel it inside and use it as fuel to light a fire under my butt and give me that little extra motivation. My motto’s always been: dream, plan, reach. Have a dream, have a plan, go for it. If you fall short, go back to the drawing board and find a better way to get there.
So you’re talking water conservation and Earth Day is coming up. How do you feel about the state of the environment right now under this administration? There’s been a different approach to the environment under this president. For example, they’re trying to repeal the Clean Water Rule, which protected small streams and wetlands from pollution. One in three Americans get their drinking water from systems that are at least partially sourced by streams protected under the Clean Water Rule. This president has rolled back many of the environmental protections enacted by the Obama administration.
I mean, I think the biggest thing for us, as Americans, is we do have that right to free speech—we are able to get up and speak about anything that we want. Yeah, obviously there are things that are frustrating at times that go on all over the world. I’m somebody who’s never really ever gotten into politics, and I will never get into politics hopefully, but I’d like to see change. We all would. We’d all like to see the world be a better place. Maybe it takes a time like this before we do see change. We are lucky to be able to live in America, where we live, and we have access and the freedom to do so much, so I would assume that things will start changing for the better, and if they don’t, who knows. It is frustrating at times to see the world how it is, and I’d like to see it back to the way it was. For me, growing up as a child, it was incredible. We had a nice, easy, fun time growing up. And now, raising two young kids, we want to give them the best environment to succeed. Hopefully we’re headed in that direction.
Yes, you’ve got two very young kids. Are you worried about the direction this country’s going in under this administration? I talked about the environmental rollbacks, but this is also just an incredibly chaotic atmosphere right now.
The world is always going to change, though. It’s the same thing with social media: Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have that stuff. There are a lot of things that are frustrating about the world we live in today, and Nicole and I are always two people who try to stay in our lane, focus on what we have to do, and what we have to do with our kids. It is tough and frustrating at times, but we can’t control that. I can’t go down to the White House, knock on the president’s door and say, “You’ve got to change this.” It’s not going to happen.
You probably could pull that off. He likes photos with famous people. Kanye pulled that off.
[Laughs] Thanks man.