In Retirement, Olympic Gold-Medalist Michael Phelps Is a Mental Health Advocate

The American Dream lies to us in all kinds of ways.

Among the worst is that pursuing it will bring happiness, and if it doesn’t, there is something wrong with us, and to solve that, we have to try harder, be better, achieve more, remain almost delusionally optimistic.

Michael Phelps is a fascinating case study in optimism. He had the audacity to believe that he could become the best ever at his chosen profession, and then he validated that optimism by doing so. But optimism is not Phelps’ default position. He doesn’t subscribe to or promote a rosy belief that all is well and all will be well.

He has been transparent about his mental health struggles, including describing a crippling bout with depression in which he didn’t leave his room for four days. His willingness to be open about his struggles shows that an outwardly successful life—professional acclaim, wealth, status, beauty queen wife, three sons—does not automatically yield inner peace. Even those who catch their dreams don’t lose their demons.

All of that is true in normal times, but it’s especially hard to be optimistic when the world is falling down around you. Harder still when you’ve wrestled with depression for years. “The pandemic has been one of the scariest times I’ve been through,” he wrote in a first-person piece on ESPN.com last year. Later in the same story, he said, “This is the most overwhelmed I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Now more than ever, Phelps looks for ways to find, grab hold of and keep optimism. It’s a constant battle, one he fights daily, which means his optimism is hard-earned. It isn’t a blind hope that things will turn out all right or that bad things won’t happen. It’s the belief that we can grind and fight and endure through the bad times. It’s the belief that our struggles can be redeemed.

“We want to move forward,” Phelps, who retired from swimming after the 2016 Olympics, tells SUCCESS. “We don’t want to be stuck. We don’t want to be trapped. We want to have hope. We want to think there is another side, there is a brighter side. Being able to push through some of this stuff and giving us hope is very important.”

Phelps finds optimism to be, in part, a byproduct of good habits. When he follows those habits, he is more likely to see the glass as half full. When he doesn’t, he isn’t. The habits, he says, give him a chance. “That’s all I want. I want a chance to be able to get to the next day to take that baby step forward,” he says. “What do I have to do to get to that next day?”

Mental health is an extremely complicated issue, and optimism is not a simple cause and effect. Just because Phelps zealously follows all of his good habits does not mean he will only ever be optimistic.

“If you think about mental health–that’s something I was very afraid for going into this pandemic because there’s so much unknown,” Phelps says. “But we can control what helps us be us. If we can pay attention to making sure we can be the best ‘us’ we can be, then we’re going to keep going forward. If we keep doing that, it’s going to change.”

Phelps sees his positive habits as links in a chain. It takes patience to build a long one. “My grand scheme of things throughout my career, I wanted to do something that nobody had ever done before in the sport,” he said. “I couldn’t do that in a day; I had to do that over time. It was one day at a time, one practice at a time.”

Outside of the pool, he uses the same mindset: The more links he strings together, the longer and stronger his chain will be. “A chain is together for a reason. I’m a process guy. If you take one step forward, that’s another link going onto your chain.… That’s something I’ve done in the pool. I’m trying to make that transition onto dry land now. It’s been a struggle for the last few years. But it’s a learning process. I pick up small things here and there.”

Those small things include getting plenty of sleep, eating right, drinking enough water and taking time for himself. None of those happen by accident.

“Over the last few years, I feel like I’ve gone through ups and downs. I’ve had times where I have been negative, and [the word can’t] does come out. I’m trying to learn to get it out of my vocabulary still to this day on dry land. It’s been a struggle. But it is true. The less negativity we have in our lives every day, it sets us up to have a chance to succeed.” 

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by David Becker / Getty Images

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected]

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