Exclusive: It was hard for me to become vulnerable, says Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps speaks on his preparations for the Olympics, his struggles with depression, and what he expects from the 2020 Tokyo Games
What does Michael Phelps eat for breakfast now?
The short answer is whatever he feels like. The long answer is a reflection of the changes he has made in his life since he retired.
Back in 2008, when the most decorated Olympian of all time was surging through the pools of Beijing like a tsunami, his diet had become the stuff of legends: 10,000 calories a day, with a breakfast that included fried egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise, a five-egg omelette, pancakes, French toast, grits and fruits.
“It’s a lot smaller now,” said the lean and tall swimming legend, who retired from the sport at Rio 2016 with a haul of 28 Olympic medals over four games.
“It was crazy, if you think about it, if you have a goal that’s so high, that’s so far away that nobody really dreams of a goal like that, all of those little things play such a huge role. If I was tired and did not want to eat but I needed to eat, I had to force food into my mouth. It’s hard for me sometimes to really like to eat. I have nightmares of people just trying to force food into my system. But that was a part of me having the opportunity to do what I did.”
Phelps, who is a brand ambassador for the American sports apparel brand Under Armour, was in New Delhi to launch their first store in the city.
He spoke at length on a range of issues—from his preparations for the Olympics, his struggles with depression, and what he expects from the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Are you looking forward to another Olympics?
I am looking forward to the 2020 games just because it’s a different way for me to experience the Olympics. It’s the first time I’ll be going to the Games and not competing. I’m interested to see just how that’s going to be. I’m going to obviously want to be in the water swimming instead of watching, but honestly to be able to watch some of the athletes that we have right now….There are a lot of great swimmers out there, men and women, and they are from all over. Over the last 15 years the sport has really changed. For so long it was USA against Australia. It’s not that way anymore and it’s amazing because it gives everybody the opportunity to stand up and win a medal for their country.
Do you have a favourite?
I’m looking forward to (US swimmer) Katie Ledecky as somebody who is already probably the greatest female swimmer ever in history, and the potential that she has. Her stroke is very good, so powerful. She is somebody I’m very excited to watch. I have some friends who I hope make the team. Like Allison Schmitt who swims with me, she lives with me in Arizona. She is somebody that I’ve trained with for a long time. She is on a journey to try to make it to another Olympic team. That’s something I’m working with her on.
You retired after the 2012 Olympics. What compelled you to return in 2014?
I felt I had unfinished business. I didn’t want to have that ‘what if’ moment 20 years down the road, where I think back and wonder ‘why didn’t I swim one more Olympics?’
I wanted to come back because of the race from 2012, I was second behind Chad le Clos (the South African beat Phelps in 200m butterfly) that left a sour taste in my mouth. That was something that really motivated me to kind of get back and climb to the top of the mountain and be able to finish my career on my terms. That was something I had to decide on my own, for myself. Nobody could help make that decision for me.
I knew I had to do it the right way and that was something I was ready for. That journey was probably the most enjoyable one for me because I felt like I was a 16-17-year-old kid again, where everything is just so fun and so enjoyable. To be able to finish the way I did, I was very pleased I made that choice to come back. I know now, moving forward, that I did everything I could in the pool. I can turn that page and move on to something else.
Races came thick and fast for you at the Olympics. What was it like just to manage that volume of competition?
There were stepping stones, going back to the early 2000s. I started to try to swim the programme I swam in 2008, back in 2002. That’s the first time I tried out 5 individual events. It’s all training, that’s all it ever was. The biggest thing that made me who I was was that I was willing to do absolutely anything in the swimming pool when I was training. I wanted the results that nobody else had ever gotten. It was more of a mental challenge than anything else, and with the coach I had, I was fortunate to be able to go through so many teaching moments, and just to mentally become stronger and stronger.
But in a programme where I have eight events, your body’s gonna tell you one thing and it’s gonna make your mind trigger. You just have to let it go and be ready for the next thing. I was swimming a hundred thousand metres a week (in training). In a programme like the Olympics, with warm up, warm down and competing, that’s a 50,000-metre week. I had to be in the best physical shape I could possibly be.
Your diet during your training phase was just jaw-dropping.
It’s crazy because during those times when I was swimming four hours a day, and working out another couple of hours a day, I was burning so many calories, and that time I was growing so much as well, I mean I was fluctuating between 5 and 10 pounds a week, so for me just to maintain weight I had to eat that much. And it was a job! If I was tired and did not want to eat but I needed to eat, I had to force food into my mouth. So now, when you ask about breakfast, I eat what I need. And enjoy it.
You are also a rare athlete who has spoken openly about your struggles with depression.
I’m gonna struggle with depression and anxiety my whole entire life. It’s what makes me, me. Ever since 2014 I’ve talked openly about it because it’s important to me, because a lot of people are struggling with the same exact thing.
It was hard for me to ask for help, it was hard for me to become vulnerable and show that side of me. But once I did, it really allowed me to grow as a human, and that was the biggest thing for me, being able to understand that it’s ok to be not ok, it’s ok to be upset or sad. The biggest thing is making sure you’re talking to somebody about it—yes, I do have a therapist, and this is something that will probably go on my whole life. Was it easy for me to sit down and first talk with a therapist? No, it wasn’t, I didn’t wanna go. But after going and now continuing to seeing one, I feel better.
Does the regimented lifestyle, the isolation of being in training all the time, of having to ignore pain and doubt, contribute to these difficulties?
I was really good at compartmentalising things, just stuffing things down and not dealing with it, and now I’ve been able to see where it leads me and it’s a dark place, a scary place, and I don’t want to go back there, and I hope nobody else goes back there. I hope to be able to help teach, and be able to hopefully save a life; that’s more important than anything I’ve ever done in the pool.
You talk about the 2020 Olympics, and there must be so many athletes that deal with depresssion, that deal with some kind of mental health struggle at the Games. It’s something I’ve personally dealt with multiple times, and I’d like to be able to put something in place to help athletes make transitions into that next road that they are going to in their life.
For me, everything I’ve gone through allows me to be comfortable with who I am today. I learnt to communicate at a later age in life than normal people do, and for me I feel like that’s something that really changed, you know, to be able to recognise certain emotions and where they are coming from, and why they are coming up, for me it just allows me to live life easier. As humans we naturally over-complicate so much in life, I think my wife and I try to keep things as simple as we possibly can and help each other and grow with each other.
How do you most like to spend your days now?
For over 20 years I’ve spent my life in the pool and competing. Now being able to have two kids, and have a family is so awesome. Before this interview, Boomer (Phelps’s elder son) was on FaceTime with me, telling me about his day, and that for me is a dream come true. Being able to see just a smile on his face, or when I come in from a trip to give me a hug.
When I am home I work out daily, and then really just hanging out with the kids. My wife and I, we don’t like to leave the house very much and really just like to enjoy our little family that we have.
Do you swim?
Sometimes, not much. I try to stay away from the pool.