With a physical gift that is almost otherworldly, Michael Phelps has become a superhero for many. Unfortunately, he isn’t the mystical being we all make him out to be, and his personal struggles are far more real than just a little kryptonite.
Though hailed as one of the greatest Olympians of all time, behind the gleam of his gold medals, the legendary athlete has been quietly dealing with an inner storm of emotions that threatened to tear him apart. With his illustrious career now in the rearview, Phelps has finally come forward to reveal that, sometimes, even a champion swimmer can’t get his head above water.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Michael Phelps began his historic career at the tender age of seven. An outlet for his ADHD, swimming quickly came to dominate his whole life.
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After breaking age-group records left and right, Phelps qualified for the 2000 Summer Olympics at age 15, becoming the youngest male to make the U.S. Olympic swim team since 1932. Though he failed to place in his event, Phelps was clearly on the fast track to becoming a world champion.
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His first medal came in 2001 when he won gold at the World Aquatics Championships for the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps’ record-breaking performance made him the youngest male ever to set a world record in swimming and instantly put his star on the map.
More record-breaking performances followed in 2002 and 2003, with Phelps walking away with seven golds and four silvers. With the 2004 Summer Olympics fast approaching, Phelps looked poised to win big for the U.S.
And win big he did, as the 19-year-old won his first Olympic gold medal with a world-record time in the 400-meter individual relay. He went on to finish with six gold medals and two bronze, marking the second-best performance ever at a single Olympics.
Phelps continued his Olympic career in spectacular fashion at the 2008 games in Beijing, winning a record eight gold medals across eight events. By surpassing Mark Spitz’s seven-gold performance in 1972, Phelps officially established himself as one of the greatest swimmers of all time.
But the achievements didn’t stop there for Phelps, as he returned to the London Olympics in 2012 and added four golds and two silvers to an already jam-packed trophy case. With his six medal wins, Phelps officially passed Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Following the 2012 Olympics, Phelps officially retired from competitive swimming, stating a desire to move on with his life. But although retirement appeared to be exactly what Phelps needed after two decades of nonstop competition, things quickly took a turn for the American hero.
In September of 2014, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. He plead guilty to the offense, and as a result, USA Swimming banned him from the organization for six months and barred him from representing them.
From here, Phelps’ mental health quickly deteriorated. His depression – which he had battled in spells throughout his life – came back in full force, and at one point he locked himself in his room for four days and refused to interact with anyone.
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In an interview with TODAY, Phelps explained that it was years of repressing his emotions that ultimately led him on this downward spiral: “After years and years and years of just shoving every negative, bad feeling down to the point where I mean, I just didn’t even feel it anymore. It was a long, long, long road and I just never wanted to deal with it.”
At one point, Phelps’ depression got so bad that he actually considered taking his own life: “[Repressing my emotions] sent me down a spiral staircase real quick… I found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Thankfully, Phelps sought help for his mental health issues, and after regular therapy sessions, he had a breakthrough. By talking through his emotions instead of bottling them up, Phelps finally felt he could live life and be himself again.
“You know, for me, I basically carried just about every negative emotion you can possibly carry along for 15, 20 years and I never talked about it,” he explained. “And I don’t know why that one day I decided to just open up. But since that day it’s just been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life and it’s something I’m very thankful for.”
As his mind recovered, so did his desire to compete again. But with the Olympic legend two years removed from competitive swimming and fast approaching his 30th birthday, not many were confident he could return to form before the 2016 summer games.
Yet much like he’d done over his entire career, Phelps proved the doubters wrong by winning five gold medals, finishing his career with an unprecedented 23 career golds. His 13th individual gold-medal win also broke the ancient Olympic record set by Leonidas of Rhodes more than 2,000 years before.
With his comeback complete and legacy restored, Phelps retired for the second and final time following the London games. He went on to marry longtime girlfriend and former Miss California Nicole Johnson, and together the couple has two children: Boomer (2016) and Beckett (2018).
Phelps has since devoted his time to speaking out on the subject of mental health and even joined the board of the diagnostic company Medibio. By sharing his story, the former Olympian hopes to inspire others to seek help for their own struggles.
“You know, yeah, some of [the experiences] have been absolutely miserable and brutal and haven’t been the funnest [sic] experiences to go through,” said Phelps. “But they’ve made me who I am today and they really have helped me grow as a person.”
“I think I’m now finally to the point where I can look at myself in the mirror and like who I see. I mean, it’s life. We all go through ups and downs. And I have a great support system and a great group around me and I’m happy.”
The pressure that comes with being a world-class athlete certainly can take a toll on one’s mental health, and for some, the constant attention can be devastating. Just ask Nadia Comaneci, a poor Romanian girl who learned the hard way that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It all started when young Nadia was doing cartwheels one day with her friends out on the playground at school. Her near-flawless move looked like a pro gymnast’s tumble compared to her friends’, and she caught the eye of the right person.
Next to the playground stood Bela Karolyi, a Romani gymnastics coach who was scoping out local schools to find potential new talent. When he introduced himself, Nadia felt like the luckiest girl on Earth and joined his team: the Flacaras, or the Flames.
After that, Nadia’s life revolved around just one thing: gymnastics. She trained for 7 hours every day, but she didn’t mind. “When Bela used to say ‘today we do five routines,'” she said, “I used to do seven. I don’t mind working hard and don’t complain.”
Then, her first big break arrived when she competed in the 1976 American Gymnastics Cup. She immediately made a name for herself by snatching a gold trophy, but she also got something more personal: a kiss from the gold-winner in the male division.
But what happened next made her forget all about the little smooch. It was time to compete in the Montreal Olympics, where she was meant to represent Romania in front of the entire world. The pressure was on, but Nadia gave the performance of a lifetime.
However, her excellence didn’t exactly reflect in the judges’ scores. “I never look at the scoreboard because I feel how I did the routine. I thought I did pretty well,” Nadia said. But the gigantic signs all around the stadium all read “1.00.” How could that be possible?
The crowd started to wonder: did she really score that badly? As it turned out, though, there were only 3 digits for each score because nobody had ever received a score of 10.00. So, she actually set a record — the first female gymnast to ever receive a perfect score!
History was made that day; Nadia had done what no woman had ever achieved before, and she did it at the age of 14. Along with setting the record, she had earned herself three gold medals, one silver, and one bronze.
From that moment on, Nadia’s life was forever changed. She had fans all across the globe and was regarded as a national hero. Within months, her face was found on stamps and dolls made in her image were flying off the shelves.
But Nadia wasn’t enjoying the spotlight. Her newfound fame hurt her mental health tremendously, and she couldn’t bear the weight of her country on her shoulders. She drank bleach in a suicide attempt and landed in the hospital.
And while Nadia did get some rest afterward, it wasn’t long before she was pushed to do an American tour. By the end of it, her country received $250,000. She received $1,000 and exhaustion.
Meanwhile, her coaches had enough of the country’s hold on Nadia and decided to stay in the U.S. “This interference with Nadia’s career led to her publicized decline between 1977 and 1978,” Karolyi stated. It broke Nadia’s heart.
Back at home, things weren’t looking up. “I was banned from traveling,” Nadia said, “and cut off from making the small amount of money that had really made the difference in my family’s life. I started to feel like a prisoner. In reality, I’d always been one.”
Eventually, Nadia planned her escape with her boyfriend, Constantin Panait. They walked for 6 hours in the dead of night trying to reach the Hungarian border. “I could not bring anything, not even my precious gold medals, a photograph, or my family.”
Once they left Romania, they continued to Austria where they visited the American embassy. Fortunately, the U.S. was willing to grant her temporary citizenship if she would compete on their team. Then, before she knew it, she was on a flight to L.A.
Unfortunately, the American public was expecting the sweet, innocent, 14-year-old superstar they had seen on TV. Instead, they saw an adult woman in a relationship with an older man who’d left his wife for her. She was an outcast once again.
Things didn’t start looking up until Nadia agreed to appear on The Pat Sajak Show. Unexpectedly, a mystery guest showed up at the taping — Bart Conner, the man who’d kissed her during the U.S.A. cup.
While the two had a great time catching up, Constantin Panait wasn’t happy about any of it. He became controlling and abusive as soon as he and Nadia set foot on American soil. “I was in a free country,” Nadia said, “but I was not free…He used me for money.”
When she’d truly had enough, she left and became roommates with Karolyi’s friend, Alexandru Stefu. Stefu and Nadia became close, but he died suddenly in an accident in 1990. She was on her own again.
With nowhere else to go, she remembered Bart’s kindness when they were young and when he met her at the TV interview. Without hesitation, he invited her to live with him. They eventually fell in love and got married.
“Bart is something everyone wants in a person. He helps everyone. You look at his face and what you see is that you can trust,” Nadia said. And it showed! They even had a child together, and the family was thriving in every way.
When she wasn’t busy being a mom, Nadia made time for a fair share of charity work, particularly with the Special Olympics. As members of the board, they traveled the world to give emotional and financial support to athletes with disabilities.
On top of everything else, they also ran a gym near their home in Oklahoma, where they trained young talent to hopefully succeed as much as they did.
When asked about her complicated past, Nadia said, “Every little thing that I have done connected the dots to what I am today.” Hopefully, she’ll never have to face any hardships again.
To overcome hardships and become the best in the world at something seems like a nearly impossible undertaking, but it’s an undertaking Nadia can maybe someday discuss with Ukraine’s Varya Akulova, below. She can relate.
Varya was born in Kryvyi Rih, in January of 1992. She came into the world as the first child of two circus performers, Yuriy Akulov and Larysa Akulova. And even from the very beginning, Varya was defying everyone’s predictions.
Yuriy was confident his first child was going to be a boy. He was so certain of this that he had begun plans to rejoin the circus with a father-son act. So when baby Varya arrived, her parents were delighted, but her father’s dreams had also been dashed. Or at least that’s what he thought.
Varya’s family had a history of almost superhuman physical strength that was rumored to be a divine gift. When Varya was born her parents wondered if she, too, might have inherited this superior aptitude. After only a few months, the answer to their pondering became very apparent.
Around the time most infants are beginning to develop their motor skills, baby Varya was able to lift herself into a standing position. By the time she turned one year old, she was exhibiting great displays of strength in her hands and arms. Twelve months fresh, and little Varya was already a prodigy.
Yuriy’s crushed dream of a father-son circus act was soon resurrected as he saw the incredible gift his daughter possessed. Though it was not as Yuriy had initially pictured, his new idea of creating an act with Varya had him more inspired than he could have imagined. A family and father-daughter act would be their fortune. Sadly, that would be their only fortune.
In 1995, at only the age of 3, Varya joined the circus with her family. Initially, her performance was exclusive to gymnastics and acrobatics. Before long though, Varya would find herself with her father under the big top, raising the very heavy proverbial bar to join the ranks of the strong.
At 5 years old Varya would steal the show as she began performing weightlifting stunts alongside her parents. Through her training, Varya’s parents gave her advice and made sure she was practicing safe lifting— especially her father, who was her primary trainer. But there were some things her parents struggled to provide.
Ukraine in the ’90s was in economic shambles, and a family of circus performers really felt the worst of that crisis. When they weren’t traveling around the country, the Akulovas lived in a tiny one-room apartment above a bar. Varya’s family went without essentials such as a refrigerator and a stove, and the only bathroom they had was one they shared with the bar downstairs.
Living in this poverty was extremely difficult, but it didn’t deter Varya from her rigorous training. As the Akulovas were reduced to a diet of bread and noodles, Varya still managed to gain impressive strength, which was not only limited to her corporeal abilities.
Varya had quite the head on her rock hard shoulders. She excelled in her studies even in the midst of her demanding extracurricular activities and the hardships she experienced at home. That is a lot of weight for anyone to carry on their shoulders, but all that was only the beginning of what Varya proved she could handle.
One night when Varya went to use their shared bathroom at the bar, two drunk men started harassing her. Varya grabbed the two yapping men by their legs and threw them to the ground. They never bothered her again, but the incident did signal to her parents that a change needed to happen.
The family moved out of the small apartment and into the stairwell of a gym. The three of them slept together on a mattress at night and trained at the gym during the day. None of these obstacles could bring Varya down, though. She harnessed her gift and, by the age of 8, she accomplished something incredible!
At 8 years old and 88 pounds, little Varya set a Guinness World Record for lifting over double her own body weight when she pumped up 220 pounds of iron — that’s the weight of an average adult panda bear! Spectacular as her accomplishment was, Varya had even more uplifting things coming her way.
A year after Varya set her world record, the Akulovas finally saved up enough to move into their own apartment. Not only did their new home give Varya a room of her own at last, but it also had enough space for them to set up a gym so she could train from home. With the dedication she had to her lifting, it was clear there was much more in store for Varya.
By age 10, she was making international appearances and wowing audiences with her ability to easily support the weight of both her parents while lying flat between two chairs. Two years later, her father commented that Varya was now stronger than him. But just how much stronger, was beyond even his belief.
In 2006, at age 14 Varya blew the world away once again when she managed to lift over 660 pounds. That’s more than 4x her own body weight! This super power move earned Varya her second Guinness World Record! Wow. Can you say, GIRL POWER!
Even with a family history of Herculean strength, young Varya defied the odds and became, not only the strongest girl but the strongest of them all! Strength as it is can intimidate and threaten the weak, and Varya’s strength was no exception.
As she continued to perform in the circus as a young woman, she would often be shouted out by men in the crowd with comments like, “No man would ever marry a strong woman.” Please don’t even pause for pity, because this strong woman just held her head high and kept on being the powerhouse that she was born to be.
Where is she now, you ask? After she was rejected from the 2012 London Olympics for the sheer reason the committee found it problematic that the 17-year-old’s father was her coach, she went to university. Aged 26 as of 2018, Varya continued her education while also juggling a job as a physical trainer.
Though some have commented that Varya’s upbringing was uncouth, looking back, Varya was grateful for her experiences and believed her childhood made her the strong girl she was and the strong woman she became. As she said in an interview, “I [only] wish I could be bigger, really big… like my dad.”