The construction of the athlete who won the most medals at the Olympic Games has behind a history of much suffering, manifested as a true ordeal suffered by Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who He retired with 28 medals, 23 of them gold, although with ghosts that have not stopped haunting him.
Born on June 30, 1985 and known as the Baltimore Shark, Phelps was one of the two great figures of the Olympic Games in the 21st century, only comparable to the phenomenon represented by the Jamaican Usain bolt in athletics, given the conditions of their performances and the logical magnetism they generated every time they competed.
To the complications that he had when he was still in activity, the swimmer has recently added the psychological consequences generated by the confinement in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, so much so that it was even necessary to express what was happening to him through a letter published in 2020.
The weight of being Michael Phelps
At just 15 years old, he jumped into an Olympic pool for the first time in Sydney 2000. Although he did not win medals at those Games, his age was enough as a letter of introduction because since Ralph Flanagan in 1932 there had not been a swimmer this young on the United States Olympic swimming team. In addition, in butterfly he reached the final and finished fifth.
Athens 2004, at the age of 19, began with the harvest of Olympic medals. (AP)
It was in the following Games, those of Athens 2004, when he became world famous with his 6 golds and two bronzes. It was the media explosion of Michael Phelps, who a year before had already demonstrated his talents by winning four golds at the Barcelona World Cups.
At 19 years old, still with adolescent impulses, the swimmer had his first fall after Athens. In November 2004, he pushed his party drive to the limit, so much so that he was arrested for drinking and driving while under the influence of alcohol in his native Maryland. Phelps pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
The incident was a blow to Phelps’ reputation, though accepting responsibility was a good example for the teens. “I recognize the seriousness of my actions,” he declared before the judge. As punishment, must have given speeches at various American schools on the dangers of alcohol.
The Baltimore Shark in the Beijing pool, where he broke the record of eight golds. (AFP)
No one suspected that behind the young winner was a strained relationship with his father, Fred Phelps, and a past marked by bullying of his classmates during school.
In Beijing 2008 he shone again by winning eight golds: 200 freestyle, 100 and 200 butterfly, 200 and 400 combined and the 4×100 and 4×200 free and 4×100 combined relays. The champion had already become a legend as the most decorated athlete in a single edition of the Games, title that still maintains.
The logic of ascent and descent reappeared in 2009. The British newspaper News of the World published a photograph of the swimmer smoking marijuana in a hookah. Phelps, who had come to Tampa, Florida to do commercial promotions and watch the Super Bowl, immediately left the city and issued a statement admitting the authenticity of the image.
Phelps, in civilian clothes in Baltimore, after being photographed using marijuana. (AP)
He was not prosecuted for lack of evidence, but his reputation was on the floor. The American Swimming Federation suspended Phelps for a period of three months, and Kellogg’s announced that it would not renew its advertising contract with the swimmer. “I behaved in a pitiful way and showed bad judgment,” he apologized.
Each Olympic event brought out the best in itself. That way, in London 2012 it shone again: it got another four golds in the 100 butterfly, the 200 combined and the 4×100 and 4×200 relays. To this he added two silvers in the 200 butterfly and the 4×100 free. At those Games, Phelps announced his professional retirement. “I was fed up,” he commented afterward. “I wanted to stop swimming.”
The satiety lasted little more than a year, since in April 2014 he returned to competition. It happened that on September 13, 2014 he was pulled over by Baltimore police for speeding. When they tested him for alcohol, he gave 1.4, twice what is allowed.
Phelps with gold in the 4×100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics (DPA)
He was sanctioned by the Federation with a six-month suspension and he was banned from participating in the 2015 World Cups.
Phelps had hit rock bottom, and so he told his friend Ray Lewis, a former Ravens football player, who knew the symptoms of depression and recommended that he go to The Meadows.
Phelps spent 45 days at The Meadows. During his treatment he made peace with his father, from whom he had distanced himself for years and decided to compete in the last Olympics, those of Rio in 2016.
When it came to the competition, he had already formed a family with Nicole Johnson (I had known her since 2007) and their first child, Boomer, had been born. It shone again in Rio: he was the only one to win 5 gold and one silver medals, at age 31.
One of the last images of Phelps on the Olympic podium, in Rio 2016. (AP)
He retired after those Olympics as one of the best swimmers of all time, with 28 Olympic medals, 23 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronzes. It was time to dedicate himself to his family, and to himself. In February 2018, their second child, Beckett, was born (he already has a third, Maverick, who arrived in September 2019).
Soon after, Phelps opened up on the ‘Locker Room Talks’ show, hosted by NBA player Kevin Love, another victim of depression. In that dialogue it was possible to delve into the causes of their excesses in the lowest moments.
He spoke about fighting depression that he had maintained throughout his career and also explained how he resisted sharing his situation out of fear of rejection: “They prepared me to be this athlete, this person, and after a while there just came a time when I didn’t like being what I was.”the swimmer explained. “That brought me to such a low point that I didn’t want to be alive.”
He was also affected by the pandemic of coronavirus. He revealed in an emotional letter that he was “battling the demons of mental health” during the mandatory isolation. “I have never felt more overwhelmed in my entire life,” wrote the former American athlete, who suffered from depression and anxiety throughout his career.
“The pandemic is one of the scariest things I’ve ever been through. I am thankful that my family and I are safe and healthy. I’m thankful that we don’t have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table like so many other people right now. But even so, I’m struggling, “he said.
He continued: “Before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I publicly shared my mental health problems for the first time. It was not easy to admit that it was not perfect. But opening up took a huge weight off my shoulders. Made life easier. Now I am opening up again. I want people to know that they are not alone. Many of us are fighting the demons of our mental health now more than ever.”.