HTLS 2019: ‘When you have a goal, nothing will stand in your way’ - Michael Phelps
Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time — he has 28 medals in total from five Olympic Games — spoke at length about his journey on the first day of the 17th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.Updated: Dec 07, 2019 01:42 IST
“When you have a goal that’s important to you, nothing will stand in your way.” With that pithy sentence, Michael Phelps, the world’s greatest Olympian, gave a glimpse of the insatiable drive that propelled him to 23 gold medals at sport’s biggest stage. Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time — he has 28 medals in total from five Olympic Games (“but we don’t talk about the silvers and bronzes,” he said) — spoke at length about his journey on the first day of the 17th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.
“I was not chasing medals, I was chasing times,” he said. “I knew the times of all my competitors, I knew my competitors better than they knew themselves. I knew the times I needed to get so no one could touch me.”
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the stage of Phelps’s greatest triumph, where he won eight gold medals and broke fellow American Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds at the 1972 Olympics, this obsession with time won him his hardest fought gold. It was the 100m butterfly — Phelps’s signature stroke — and he knew that his closest competitor, Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, would get off to a faster start.
“But I also knew that if I could do 24.0 [seconds] in the first 50 [metres], I would win,” Phelps said. “I did 24.1 (seconds), and I won the race by 1/100th of a second.” It was also Phelps’ seventh gold, tying Spitz’s record.
“The making of a champion is mostly mental,” Phelps said. “My losses — those silvers and bronzes that I don’t want to talk about — were the best thing that happened to me, because they really motivated me.”
It was something that Bob Bowman, Phelps’s lifelong coach, knew well. Before that 200m butterfly at the 2008 Olympics, Cavic made headlines by saying that it would be better for the sport of swimming if he beat Phelps. Bowman used that to motivate Phelps.
He revealed that going into the 2008 Olympics, the legendary Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, who had won five golds at the 2000 Games, told him that it would be “impossible to win eight medals”.
“I had that highlighted in my locker,” Phelps said. “In 2016, he [Thorpe] told me, ‘a person over 30 can’t win gold [at the Olympics]’. I had that in my locker too.”
At the 2016 Rio Games, his last, Phelps won five gold medals, again more than any other athlete.“So I asked him [Thorpe] later about it,” Phelps said, “and he said ‘I know how your mind works, so you can thank me for it!’”
Yet this fierce competitiveness, this all-consuming drive, also took its toll. After the 2012 Olympics, Phelps began to experience bouts of depression.
“I went through the scariest time in 2012,” he said. “Just sitting in my room for 4-5 days, thinking, I don’t want to be alive.” It was, he said, a result of him seeing himself “strictly as a swimmer, not as a human being”.
It was then that Phelps sought professional help, and went into therapy. He has been working tirelessly for the cause of mental health ever since, hoping to help more people open up about their difficulties and vulnerabilities and find the courage to seek help.
In 2014, he returned to the pool after a two-year gap with a fresh perspective.
“I felt like a high-school kid,” he said. “I was enjoying it so much. To make a comeback, to win five medals [at the 2016 Games], and have my family there, my first born son - that was the most special thing.”