Sports

For Michael Phelps, all that gold couldn’t glitter until he found God

Medals and media accolades proved empty, and couldn't fill a void that was turning his thoughts to suicide

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 05: Michael Phelps prepares to swim the Men's 200 meter individual medley heat race during the Longhorn Aquatics Elite Invite on June 5, 2016 in Austin, Texas.   Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP

Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP

Superstar swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, nearly committed suicide two years ago. His athletic prowess and success had brought him so much attention over the last decade that sports media nearly worshiped him as a kind of god, but Phelps was struggling to find peace in his heart.

USA's Michael Phelps competes in a Men's 200m Individual Medley heat during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2016.   / AFP PHOTO / Martin BUREAU
USA's Michael Phelps competes in a Men's 200m Individual Medley heat during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Martin BUREAU

He felt empty inside and sought to fill his pain with drugs and alcohol, which sent him into a downward spiral. In 2009 he was suspended from swimming for three months after a photograph of him using a bong went viral, but that didn’t stop him from partying and living on the edge. In fact, things got worse, culminating in his second DUI arrest in ten years.

Phelps was at his lowest of lows. In the days after his arrest, he isolated himself and kept on drinking.

He admitted in an interview with ESPN, “I had no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.”

His gold medals couldn’t console him and he had no purpose to keep on living.

Providentially, his family and friends convinced him to check-in at a rehab center and deal with his demons. At first he was reluctant to open up, but after some time he accepted his fate and started on the path of recovery.

Phelps brought with him the book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. It had been given to him by former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, and he not only read it; he began to share it with fellow patients. This gave him the nickname at the rehab center of “Preacher Mike.”

He thanked Lewis for the book, saying, “Man this book is crazy! The thing that’s going on…oh my gosh…my brain, I can’t thank you freaking enough, man. You saved my life.” Phelps explained in an interview that the book, “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”

Athletes kiss their medals, which validate their hard work, but can never love them back. Media accolades are a fickle wind. The love that grounds faith helps restore perspective. In addition to finding faith during rehab, Phelps recognized that much of his unrest was due to the absence of his father for most of his life. His parents were divorced when Phelps was nine and to fill that void he went to the pool. Once water had been conquered, the ache showed itself.

When it was time for Family Week at the rehab center, Phelps reconnected with his father and it proved to be a healing time for both. They hugged for the first time in years and the experience helped Phelps move forward.

A few months after rehab, Phelps asked his longtime girlfriend Nicole Johnson to marry him. Now engaged, their wedding is planned for after the Rio Olympics. Shortly after becoming engaged the two found out Nicole was pregnant, and the recent birth of their son was another turning point for Phelps.

After receiving his son in a warm blanket, Phelps cried. “I just kind of stood there,” he told ESPN, “I didn’t think I would be emotional, but it all just sort of hit me: ‘That’s our son.’ And you suddenly have this new appreciation for what love really is.”

With the new responsibility of a family, tonight’s race could be his last ever. Phelps has said that he plans to retire after Rio. However, he recently said in an interview, “To have our first-born be able to watch — I’ll say this, just in case I come back — my potential last Olympics. Just so you guys don’t beat me to death if I come back, I’m just going to say that: To have him watch the potential last races of my career is something I look forward to being able to share with him.”

Michael Phelps of the United States of America reacts during the awarding ceremony for men?s 4x200m freestyle relay final of swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 9, 2016. The U.S. won the gold medal with 7 minute 0.66 seconds. / CHINA OUT
Michael Phelps of the United States of America reacts during the awarding ceremony for men?s 4x200m freestyle relay final of swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 9, 2016. The U.S. won the gold medal with 7 minute 0.66 seconds. / CHINA OUT

By the grace of God Phelps was rescued from the pit and brought into life. Phelps may not be perfect, but his newfound Christian faith has given him a new direction. His success still puts him on a platform, and the media continues to worship him like a god, but this time Phelps seems to have a better sense of who he is in the grand scheme of things, and what really matters. He understands that gold medals – no matter how many one can accumulate – have no power to save.

More to read: Katie Ledecky relies on the grace of God

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Philip Kosloski

Philip Kosloski is a husband and father of five, and staff writer at Aleteia. He also writes for The Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer), and blogs at the National Catholic Register.