Michael Phelps: ‘I didn’t want to be alive’


Victoria BresnahanNews Editor

The most decorated Olympian of all-time once considered committing suicide.

In 2014, after 28-time medalist Michael Phelps was charged for a second time with driving under the influence, he said he “didn’t want to see the next morning.”

He spent the next three to five days locked in his room not wanting to be alive or talk to anyone. He said he did not eat or drink but remained in bed and cried.

“I’ve been able to do everything that I’ve wanted to do in my professional career so far and it hasn’t been easy,” he said, the 21st annual Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecture Series, “and I’ve had some things that have made it even more challenging—to the point where I didn’t want to be alive for a few days.”

Now a retired professional swimmer, Phelps advocates for mental health awareness.

“He has become the vocal and influential ambassador for mental health awareness,” said President Joe Bertolino, during the event’s introduction.

While training, Phelps said he would experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The most daunting moment of his depression occurred when he locked himself in his room and did not want to be alive after receiving his second driving under the influence charge.

At the lecture, which was moderated by former ESPN reporter Kate Fagan, Phelps, who began swimming at age 7, said he never had the opportunity to reflect on his life while competing. He said his lifestyle was always “go, go, go.”

“I didn’t really have the time or energy to dwell on things from the past,” said Phelps.

By the 2012 London Olympics, Phelps said his mental health began to spiral. This, he said, was his worst Olympic experience. “[I was] praying the week of Olympics would end and I could move on.”

Being engaged with more things that needed his attention was one of the factors that saved his life, he said. After an honest and open interview with Sports Illustrated in 2014, he began to speak pubically about his depression.

It felt like a weight had been lifted from him, he said.

“Being able to understand that it is okay to not be okay,” he said, “and putting so much pressure on myself. Just kind of enjoying the ride, the experience.”

Bertolino said, during the event’s introduction, student mental health is a challenging issue facing higher education.

“With Southern’s proud commitment to access social justice and empowering lives through higher education,” he said, “we recognize the need to prioritize mental health.”

Before he became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, he said he remembers being afraid to put his face under the water as a child.

By age 11, Phelps had a 4-year plan on how he would place on the U.S. Olympic team for the 2000 summer games in Sydney, Australia.

“I wanted to break a world record,” he said. “I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wanted to be a gold medalist.”

After placing in fifth place at the games, Phelps said he was back in the pool the next day to train for the next Olympics.

At the time, he remembers looking at his coach’s practice sheet and seeing the world record time for the 200-meter backstroke in the top corner. He broke the record six months later.

“I wanted more [after that],” he said.

Pressure for Phelps is “whatever you put on yourself.” While competing, he said he put more pressure on himself than any media outlet or person could to get the most out of himself as possible.

“I wanted to see what my limit was,” he said.

His motivation to be the best swimmer rested in his times, he said.

From a young age, his coach Bob Bowman, taught him to “[dream] as big as you possibly can.”

“I knew that if I was able to hit those certain times,” Phelps said, “then no one else would be able to get those times.”

Phelps said it is “awesome” to be the best at something. Looking back, he said he will not have a ‘what-if’ moment about his swimming career.

“For me, being to go through my career, you know, from the very beginning til the end in 2016 with all the ups and downs that I had I would never change a single thing.”

Photo Credit: August Pelliccio

*This article is an updated and extended version of the ‘Michael Phelps discusses mental health awareness at Lyman’.

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