It’s been 10 years since swimming champ Michael Phelps began to talk publicly about his mental health battles. “I was so afraid to open up because I am a male and I was an athlete, and I felt like I couldn’t show that side to my competitors,” says the 23-time Olympics gold medal winner, 38. “I felt like I couldn’t be vulnerable.”
After contemplating suicide in 2014, he sought professional help and made it his mission to help others. “Therapy has been a lifesaver for me,” he says. “For a long time, I felt like I could do everything by myself. Asking for help was challenging, but once I did, it made things so much easier.” Here, the father of four (he and his wife of seven years, Nicole Johnson, welcomed son Nico on January 16 and also share Boomer, 7, Beckett, 5, and Maverick, 4) tells In Touch’s Lindsay Hoffman about self-care, dad life and happiness.
How is your mental health now?
It’s just a part of who I am. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been able to pick up tools. For a long time, I saw myself as a swimmer, not a person. Now I get to look in the mirror and see a human, not just somebody with a cap and goggles.
What was your lowest point?
I didn’t want to be alive. Negative thoughts were running through my head. In 2014, I contemplated committing suicide. That’s when I decided I needed help.
What are some things you do to keep your mental health in check?
I work out every day. It was a part of who I am for 20 years, so I have to continue that. It’s a way for me to get my mind and body right. Self-care is something we have to do no matter what.
How has Nicole supported you?
I’m not sure I’d be here without her. We’ve been together for 16 years, so she’s seen a lot of my ups and downs. She had to get help for herself because of everything she saw me go through. I’m lucky to have her. I can be myself with her.
During Men’s Mental Health Month, you partnered with the Talkspace app to “check in on men.” Why?
We’re trying to teach others the importance of opening up about these difficult things. It allows us to grow and become the best versions of ourselves. One of my goals is to lower the suicide rate.
How is dad life treating you?
I have a lot more gray! It’s helped me slow down. I want to be the best dad I can be, and I want to teach them everything I can. They are light-years ahead of where I was. I joke about how I learned to communicate at 30, and to see a 7-year-old do it makes me very happy.
Do you want them to be swimmers?
I don’t want to push them if it’s not something they truly desire. I want them to just be kids. My two oldest play soccer, and my middle one asked to play flag football. My oldest is also into golf. In a perfect world, I’d want one of my kids leading the majors in golf. I’m obsessed.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Are you happier than ever?
I have my moments. When friends text to ask how I am, I use the roller-coaster emoji because sometimes it’s really good and sometimes it’s really low. I’ll say I don’t have as many lows as I used to.