By On August 9th, 2016

Michael Phelps: From Gold Medals to Rock Bottom and Back Again



Source: Marco Paköeningrat/Flickr

When Michael Phelps won his 23rd gold medal at the Olympics this weekend with his teammates in a relay race, he looked happier than ever. He continued to cement himself as the world’s greatest Olympic swimmer with his fiancée and young child cheering him on. But, just two years ago he says he was in a downward spiral that took him to “the darkest place you could imagine.”

Phelps has been an icon of sports for years, but he has had many public struggles that eventually lead him to rehab in 2014. He has struggled with substance abuse throughout his career which almost ruined his life.

At just the age of 19, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Maryland and was sentenced to serve 18 months’ probation and speak to students about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Men's and Women's Olympic Swimming. National Aquatics Center

In 2009, shortly after his world-record breaking performance at the Beijing Olympics, Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana. This led to the loss of several sponsorships, as well as a suspension from USA swimming. He later apologized.

The photograph sparked controversy that plagued the athlete through the 2012 Olympics. Despite earning several more medals, Phelps seemed distracted and distant throughout the games and retired at the end of the games.

Like many retired athletes, Phelps struggled to find purpose or direction without the constant training and strict schedule. He isolated himself from others and put on a notable amount of weight. Recently, he told ESPN he felt he had “no self-esteem or self-worth” during this time.

Eventually, Phelps decided to come out of retirement, but he found swimming didn’t solve his emotional issues and his substance abuse continued to grow.

“I remember not wanting to talk to anybody, not wanting to see anybody, really not wanting to live. I was on a downward spiral.”

Phelps’ struggles with substance abuse came to a head in 2014, when the swimmer was arrested for DUI in Baltimore. The arrest led to another suspension and doubts that Phelps would appear at the Rio Games.

Thankfully, former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis stepped in to help gives Phelps support and encouraged the swimmer to enter rehab. This is when everything turned around for the famed Olympian.

Phelps told NBC he is “thankful for that night, because who knows where I would have been if I had got home safely that night.”

The time in rehab helped Phelps work through issues with his estranged father, who he is now close with. Just three months after he was discharged, the swimmer got engaged to his long-time girlfriend Nicole Johnson. The two had a son in May 2015.


With the help of rehabilitation and treatment, Michael Phelps is back on top of the world and looks poised to bring home several more medals throughout the games. The change is noticeable, too. The swimmer looks happier and has been giving extensive interviews openly talking about his struggles. Thanks to treatment, Phelps’ says he is enjoying swimming more than ever and has even teased that the Rio Games may not be his last.

While many athletes struggle with addiction and substance abuse throughout their careers, few fall as hard as Michael Phelps. However, his story shows that no matter how far a person’s “rock bottom” may be, they can always recover to reach new heights and maybe even break a world-record or two.

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