NEW HAVEN — He walked into the Kendall Drama Lab at the Lyman Center moments after 6 p.m. Friday. Michael Phelps showed no indication he had just returned from a flight from a four-day stay in India.
Remember those days when Phelps, despite his athletic greatness, seemed awkward, certainly gangly? Not anymore. Blue shirt, black pants, no socks, hair perfectly coiffed and beard neatly trimmed, Phelps looked like a Hollywood star.
Yet it was not his outward appearance that brought the greatest swimmer in history to Southern Connecticut State University on this night. It was what is inside him, really, inside all of us. In an hour Phelps would be the featured speaker at the Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecture in front of 1,500 people at the sold-out Lyman Center. First he would sit down with a group of students, many of them swimmers, spreading the word about mental health while sprinkling in answers to questions about his career.
Phelps won more gold medals than anyone in Olympic history, and that didn’t stop him from wanting to kill himself.
If the most successful athlete in the world has thought about suicide, here’s the question we all must ask: Why would any other athlete think he or she couldn’t fall into the horrible grasp of mental illness?
Who’s fast enough to outrun or outswim depression? Who can shoot enough 3-pointers to guarantee he’d never point a gun at his own head and shoot?
“When I found myself in the darkest moment so far in my life where I didn’t want to be alive for a handful of days, I locked myself in a room,” Phelps said. “I decided there had to be another way out. I figured there was something else I had to be able to uncover some things I wanted to uncover. Figure out why I was how I am.
“For me, it went from uncovering past experiences I had never really brought up. I compartmentalized, stuff them down, not deal with them. After a while, it got to be too much. I couldn’t handle it. At that point I was on my knees asking for help. I was scared.”
The guy had more gold hanging around his neck than a ’90s rapper, yet he found himself spinning into an abyss after each Olympics. He had 23 gold medals and 28 total medals and he couldn’t shake the unrelenting companion Winston Churchill called the “black dog.”
Phelps said the fall of 2004 was the first time. There was that famous photo of him taking a hit on a bong that surfaced not long after he dominated the 2008 Olympics. Yet the worst would be in 2012 after he added four more gold medals in London. There was a DUI.
He didn’t want to swim anymore. He didn’t want to live anymore. He talked about sitting in his room for five days, not sleeping, not eating.
“Until 2014 I probably didn’t want to ask for help and didn’t know how to ask for help,” Phelps said. “It’s still something I struggle with. It’s never easy asking for help. Especially being an athlete, a male athlete, this persona we’re some big strong person that can get through anything ourselves. Alone. It makes it a lot harder that way.
“It was the scariest part of my life going into a treatment center. I felt like I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t know anybody. I felt so bizarre. First couple of days I didn’t talk to anybody. That’s when I said I’m doing this for me.”
He began to address his feelings, the anguish that led to his depression and anxiety and made him feel like he’d blow up.
“I didn’t want to see a therapist,” Phelps said. “A lot of people don’t. But I will say it’s something that saved my life. I can’t say how much better I feel getting things off my chest. A lot of it stemmed around my family and my father and almost the abandonment I had. That’s hard to deal with and hard to carry. It’s scary, but I would encourage everyone to ask, to ask, to ask. No matter how stupid you think it is, ask for help. You have to get out there and act on it. Suicide rates are climbing and that is something that needs to stop.”
This is the power of Michael Phelps. This is the power of an NBA star like Kevin Love. This is the power of our great athletes to speak out on mental illness. If it can hit them, it can hit all of us. And it will. A study has shown one third of female college athletes and nearly 20 percent males showed some signs of depression.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, where you come from, we all suffer from various mental illnesses,” Phelps said. “My career is my career. My mental health wasn’t good for so long. It was something I was really good at hiding. I didn’t know who I was as person. I could barely look at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like who I saw. I literally thought I was a swimmer and that’s it. I had to go back and discover myself.”
Phelps paused for a moment. He likes what he sees in the mirror most days now.
“I still have struggles,” he said. “I struggle all the time. It’s scary. I can’t thank my wife and my support system enough.”
At that point, he said something fascinating. He said he doesn’t know what would have happened to his swimming career had he continued to hide behind his emotions.
“In a way it probably did help me, pushing through some things I had to push through to get to where I got,” he said. “But it’s definitely not safe and not something I would do again.
“In 2014, I had an interview with Sports Illustrated, as a story of a kickoff for the Olympics. For whatever reason, Tim Layden asked a question and I unloaded everything. I opened up about all of it. Ever since that moment, I felt like a 16-, 17-, 18-year old kid. I wasn’t carrying all that excess weight. I was able to sit down with my father and we both expressed what we wanted to take about. A 50-pound weight was removed off my back. I walked taller. I was happier. I lived life how I wanted. It was the best thing I could do.”
It made the journey from retirement to a five gold-medal performance in Rio one of the of the most fun climbs he ever had.
“I knew I had to do it in a perfect way and my mental and physical state had to be better than it ever had been my life,” he said. “I had probably gone eight to 10 years at one point without talking about anything, stuffing things down. I was really good at hiding things.
“But living your best life is the most important thing you can do. And that includes asking for help. Trust me. I’ll say it 100 times. I still struggle.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress at 1-800-273-8255.