By Mark Ellis
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, 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
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.”
Phelps 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.
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.
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