x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 November 2017

'I wanted to kill myself, and I was able to come back': Greatest Olympian of them all Michael Phelps wants legacy to be more than just about winning medals

Winner of 23 Olympic golds, the American was in Dubai to talk candidly about his battles with depression and how he hopes to teach people that 'it’s OK to not be OK'

Former American swimmer Michael Phelps meets children at the opening of the Under Armour store at the Dubai Mall. Under Armour
Former American swimmer Michael Phelps meets children at the opening of the Under Armour store at the Dubai Mall. Under Armour

While thousands of parents across the city fret over how their child’s first week at school is going, a mum and dad from out of town stroll into a meeting room at the Address, Dubai Mall.

Their son is just 16 months old, so they still have some way to go before concerning themselves with the joys of watching their offspring start school.

Prevarications over what he might take to in life can wait. For now, learning some words, sleeping through the nights, and nappy changing are about the extent of it.

Still, though, the father, 32, places his phone - with a photo of his son as the main wallpaper image - on a coffee table, sits down, and ponders what the future might look like.

“If he does play sport, great. If he doesn’t, then OK,” he says.

“I really want him to play golf. I don’t want him to swim. I don’t care what he does, but I’d rather he play golf.

“I joke that I’d rather him to be at the top of the leaderboard at The Masters, instead of at a seven-hour swim meet on a Saturday.”

In this case, there is a bit more to it than worrying about all those interminable hours competitive swimmers have to devote to making the best of themselves.

Little Boomer Phelps, after all, has already been touted in some quarters as a potential Olympic gold medallist in the pool at the 2032 Games.

Even if he did make good on that prophesy, he would still have another 22 golds to go before he matches his dad’s record.

With pressure like that sure to burden him, it makes sense that father Michael might want to nudge him in the direction of the fairways rather than the pool.

Although he is showing a certain aptitude for stock-car racing, too. “He drives around the house in this little Mini Cooper,” Phelps says of son Boomer.

“It is hysterical. After he is done, we are definitely going to have to paint the walls again."

Had Phelps himself been a golfer – he plays recreationally off a handicap of nine - he might not have had to face up to his own mortality just yet. He has already done that twice, and he is only 32.

The first time round, the idea of the career which has defined him being over by the time he was 27 led him to a depression that included suicidal thoughts.

Now, though, he is adamant retirement is for good. He says he is at peace with it, after his glorious swansong in the pool at the Rio Olympics last year, and with the joys of parenthood due to double soon.

His wife, Nicole, who is with him in Dubai as part of their whistle-stop, eight-day round the world tour with his sponsors Under Armour, is expecting.

Phelps argues that what comes next will define his legacy, not the golden achievements that went before.

Among his various business interests, he is helping work on a wearable diagnostic tool to help prevent depression, a cause that he says drives him.

“I am finished in my competitive swimming career, but now I get the chance to talk about things I never had the chance to talk about before,” he says.

“I can honestly say I have gone through depression about half a dozen times. I have anxiety, I have ADHD [Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“There are things that, I guess you could say, make me human. I will get up and talk about it, because it is part of my life. I have nothing to hide.”

Phelps says that competing in London in 2012 felt “forced”, and that some of the races rank among the bleakest memories of his career.

Reneging on his subsequent decision to retire revived his zest for life. It brought him the last five golds of his record-breaking career haul, in Brazil – and contentment.

“For me, throughout most of my career, I don’t want to say I had a mask on, there were times when I wasn’t really showing who I was,” Phelps says.

“For the past three years, this is who I am, this is what you get.

“When it comes to mental health, hopefully we can teach people that it’s OK to not be OK.

“I wanted to kill myself, and I was able to come back, two years later, and be the happiest guy in the world, because I had the right tools around me, and I was willing to change. I was willing to get better.

“There are a lot of things outside of the pool that could potentially be bigger than me winning X amount of medals.

“Medals, yeah, they’re obviously amazing, and I will always love to see them, or hold them, or talk about them. But I don’t want my career to just be gold medals or world records.

“I’d like my career and legacy to be bigger than that.”