Olympic swimmer Phelps credits ‘Purpose Driven Life’ for turnaround, reconciling with father


By Mark Ellis

Michael Phelps holding copy of "The Purpose Driven Life".
Michael Phelps holding copy of “The Purpose Driven Life”.

After competing in four Olympiads, Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. But after a damaging photo of Phelps emerged showing him smoking drugs through a bong and two DUI arrests, his life hit bottom.

“I was a train wreck,” he told ESPN. “I was like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self worth. There were times where I didn’t want to be here. It was not good. I felt lost.”

He retired from the sport after winning 18 gold medals, but underneath the surface were unresolved issues from his past. One of the biggest resulted from his parents’ divorce when Phelps was nine-years-old, and a “complicated” relationship with his father, Fred Phelps, a Maryland state trooper.

“I felt like he was abandoning me and I didn’t put any energy into something I thought was a dead-end street,” Phelps told ESPN.

Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

Bob Bowman, Phelps’s coach, became a father figure, but even he became disillusioned by Phelps’s erratic behavior. “After the bong photo, Michael didn’t trust anybody, except for me, his mom, and maybe a couple other people. He was wary of everything,” Bowman said.

Following the London Olympics of 2012, Phelps retired as the most-decorated Olympian of all time. “I was finished; I wanted nothing to do with the sport. I was done,” he told ESPN.

But retirement brought a newfound freedom that was intoxicating at first. “I gained 30 pounds. I probably had too much fun. Whatever I wanted to do, I did. I was a little twerp,” he recounted.

Phelps approached Bowman about coming back for one last Olympics in Rio.

“No, I can’t go through this again,” Bowman told him.

Phelps protested. “No, I’ll do it the right way,” he assured his coach.

But on September 30, 2014, Phelps left the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, where he had been drinking heavily, and foolishly got behind the wheel. Police pulled him over for going 81 in a 55 zone.

A breathalyzer test revealed a blood alcohol level that was nearly twice the legal limit. He was charged with a DUI, his second in 10 years.

Coach Bowman thought it was the last straw — his third strike — and that was it.

For the next week Phelps languished in his Baltimore home curled up in his bedroom, with thoughts of suicide careening through his mind.

This is the end of my life… How many times will I mess up? Maybe the world would be better without me, people won’t have to deal with the BS or the crap I put them through, he thought.

Phelps isolated himself, didn’t eat, and rarely slept during his week of implosion, as he continued to be dogged by suicidal impulses.

But prompted by God, an unexpected rescue call came from a longtime friend, NFL star Ray Lewis, a strong

NFL star Ray Lewis
NFL star Ray Lewis

Christian. Immediately, Lewis sensed the hopelessness and despair in Phelps.

“This is when we fight,” Lewis told Phelps. “This is when real character shows up. Don’t shut down. If you shut down we all lose.”

Lewis proceeded to tell Phelps about his own dark days, “some things that weren’t pretty” in his life, which is an understatement.

Following a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in 2000, Lewis and two friends got into an altercation in the Cobalt Lounge near downtown. In the resulting fight, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were stabbed to death. The white suit Lewis was wearing that night has never been found.

Lewis’s attorney negotiated a plea deal that resulted in 12-months probation and his two friends were ultimately acquitted, but in many eyes his reputation was shattered. However, the devastating ordeal deepened Lewis’s personal faith in God.

On the phone, Lewis convinced Phelps to seek help at the Meadows, a behavioral rehab facility outside Phoenix, according to ESPN.

Phelps knew it was time for a change, but taking the next step was outside his comfort zone. “I got into a car, shaking in the car, shaking when I got there. I was scared s___less, afraid for the first time in my life.

“When you find your lowest point in your life, you’re open to a lot of things to try and change that, to get back on the right path. I was just surrendering.”

purposelifePhelps entered rehab carrying a book Lewis gave him, The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren.

“It’s turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet,” Phelps told ESPN.

After reading the book for a couple days, Phelps called Lewis. “Man this book is crazy!” he exclaimed. “The thing that’s going on…oh my gosh…my brain, I can’t thank you freaking enough, man. You saved my life.”

Lewis felt encouraged that Phelps was emerging from his suicidal despair. “I could see he was coming out of it – he will make it. Then he started calling me with things he was reading and I thought, It’s sinking in.”

Warren’s book also convinced Phelps to reconcile with his father, because God’s heart is always for reconciliation.

Indeed, chapter 20 of The Purpose Driven Life begins with this: “(God) has restored our relationship with him through Christ, and has given us the ministry of restoring relationships.” (2 Cor. 5:18)

“Relationships are always worth restoring,” Warren concludes.

Fred Phelps was surprised when he got an invitation to attend “a family week” with his son.

Fred Phelps became emotional as he discussed their reconciliation
Fred Phelps became emotional as he discussed their reconciliation

The younger Phelps was even more surprised when his father accepted the invitation. “I was shocked,” he told ESPN. “I didn’t think he would come.”

When the two men first saw each other they opened their arms and embraced in a big hug. “It was good, challenging at times, but probably the biggest learning experience we’ve had with one other,” Michael says.

“I didn’t want to have that what if. I didn’t want to go through life without having the chance to share emotions I wanted to share with him. That’s what I missed as a kid,” he said.

Fred Phelps is hopeful for the future of their relationship. “I hope he can learn from the mistakes I have made. I think we’re both aware, after the rehab, of some of the things I could have done, some of the things he could have done, remembering them and having them be as an education rather than a scar or bad memory,” he told ESPN.

Michael and Nicole with their newborn, Boomer
Michael and Nicole with their newborn, Boomer

In November 2014, Phelps left the Meadows rehab facility and resumed training for the Rio Olympics. Three months later he asked his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Johnson, to be his wife. On May 5th, 2016, Boomer Robert, their firstborn, came into the world.





To watch ESPN’s video, “The Evolution of Michael Phelps,” go here


  1. God bless you Michael and your family and may the Lord continue to give you confidence and strength for the Rio Olympics ❤ take care Brenda

  2. God Bless You for sharing your side of the story, it will help everyone who’s going though difficult times to get help… Thank you for your courage to seek help from the only person who matters Jesus Christ our God… Bless you and your family.
    Also you can be a catalyst like Ray Lewis was for you. We need more men like Y’all

    Sincerely Margie Wesley

  3. Michael, Thanks for sharing. I had an accident drinking and driving 27 yrs ago. I am a C-4 Quadraplegic. It hasn’t been an easy road but with GOD all things are possible! Michael you have touched so many peoples lives and I’m so glad you got help for your problem. Depression is real and some people don’t realize it til its to late. I will be cheering you on in RIO and look forward to seeing you thrive. Keep the faith and stay sober!
    Take care,
    Dan Albright

  4. It just goes to prove that no man can do it on HIS own and great to see you share your hope Michael MAY HE BLESS YOU BEYOND ANYTHING YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED SO FAR

  5. O livro Uma Vida Com Propósitos foi distribuído a diversos jornalistas que fizeram suas matérias no Condominio do Edifício Barão de Pinhal. Como síndico e junto com a equipe de administração fomos um dos pioneiros na individualização de água na cidade do Rio de Janeiro. Agora o presidente Temer sancionou uma lei, com base no que foi feito no Rio de Janeiro, para todo o Brasil. É um livro desafiador e que tem base bíblica. Seu autor, Rick Warren, diz que o objetivo do livro é preparar o leitor para responder a duas perguntas fundamentais no que respeita onde passaremos a eternidade e o que faremos lá. Acredito que o Phelps ao ler o livro sentiu-se desafiado a voltar a competir nas Olimpiadas no Rio de Janeiro.

  6. God Bless you and your family. Thank you for sharing your story. Keep sharing it. Depression is real and it is more common than ever. People need hope. God has called you to be an example for others. Nobody is perfect , only our Lord and Savior is perfect. HE is the only one who can rescue us from ANTYHING .

  7. Praise the Lord Michael! God has a great plan for your life.Just pursue it as you pursue your finishing tap at the end of the pool.He’ll bring you through.Keep going! God bless you at Rio! Go for it!

  8. Michael, thank you for being courageous enough to share your journey! It has inspired me and I am sure many others.
    It is amazing how God never gives up on us, even if we give up on ourselves. When I was 19 yrs. old I thought my life was over, beyond repair. I accepted Christ and found out my life had just begun! That was 47 yrs. ago and I have had an unbelievable life and the best is yet to come!
    Our prayers are with you and your beautiful family. Phil. 1:6

  9. What a wonderful testemony! So many people can be led to Christ by it. Michael can do so much for Christ because he is well known across the world. God bless him and his family

  10. This wonderful story is full of hope for Michael Phelps. Unless I missed it nowhere is there a clear surrender or decision for salvation to Christ, I hope in the future there is a clear testimony of his decision to become a Christian. God has blessed him with a great talent.

  11. with all due respect, how does a christian have a child while still not married? oh, am i being too judgmental. mp needs to be discipled.

  12. Michael, Your testimony is a great story of gaining life’s rewards through blood, sweat and tears but without fulfillment until you met Christ Jesus whose blood, sweat and tears were shed to give you the greatest gift of eternal life completely fulfilled in Him.

  13. Divorce leaves kids with great inner conflicts – their rocket platform has collapsed. It is a “Jesus-Miracle” that Phelps managed to fly so straight and strong, from that broken home base.

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