The Prodigal Swimmer: Michael Phelps

Jeff Cunningham
42 min readFeb 26, 2024

“Once my father and I started talking, I haven’t had a dream about snakes since.”

Michael Phelps and his 23 Olympic gold medals

Earth, Wind, Water, Fire — and Love

Empedocles, a wise figure from ancient Greece, was the first to recognize that the world is composed of four classical elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. He also believed that love was responsible for arranging the elements into harmony. He suggested a counterpart that unravels our lives to create chaos. He called that strife.

Call My Agent

In 2017, Peter Benson Carlisle was driving past Cape Elizabeth, heading north. Since becoming Octagon’s chief of Olympic Talent Management, the ruggedly handsome former lawyer was named one of the top 15 celebrity agents in the world, according to Sports Illustrated. Being consigliere to the greatest Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, since 2002 was both a matter of cause and effect, with the result that insiders dubbed Carlisle Mr. Olympics.

While sipping on a venti Starbucks at his desk, like many successful professionals, Carlisle begins every day grazing over the callback list. The roster of names who want a piece of his time includes multimillion-dollar sponsors and Olympic bigwigs, sprinkled among top reporters from CNN, CNBC, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated. But that November, one name that popped out was decidedly unfamiliar: a journalism professor at ASU.

Carlisle left me a voicemail:

“Jeff, sorry for taking so long to get back,” he began with a chuckle, “I’m not complaining.” referring to Phelps’ immense popularity after bagging his 23rd gold medal. “I’ve been waiting for Michael and Nicole (Phelps’ wife and a former Miss California) to have some downtime.

However, there’s an event in July at ASU. If you think that timing works for your interview, let me know.”

As Carlisle promised, a scruffily bearded Michael Phelps walked onto the stage at Arizona State University, the audience half expecting, half hoping he would tear open his shirt to get a better look at his six-pack — and 23 gold medals. Given the 110* degree July heat where ASU is located outside of Phoenix, he might have been more comfortable.

Phelps is an Olympic god. Tall, rangy, and magnetic, he walks with a feline muscularity, and suddenly, his underwater performance doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The one-man all-star team is an entire trophy room unto himself, wallpapered in gold, silver, and bronze. He is not just a winner but a paradigm of success, someone whose reputation will live on as long as anyone is building Olympic pools. But what was really behind it, we wondered, as the interview began? Would he even know?

Across five Olympic Games, from 2000 to 2016, from Sydney to Athens, London to Beijing, and Rio, Phelps amassed an astonishing 28 Olympic medals, including a record-breaking 23 golds. This haul places him far ahead of any other Olympic athlete, nearly three times that of his closest competitor, who earned no more than eight. If Phelps divided himself into two he would occupy first and second place among all Olympians since 1896. If Phelps divided into three, he’d be the first, second, and fourth most decorated Olympian.

But the bigger question was whether Phelps was three times better than anyone else….or just a little bit better when it counted. If so, what gave him that edge? He seemed to win the moment he dove into the water, and even when he crashed on land, he found a way to reimagine himself and was back in the winner’s circle again. However that happened, and why fate chose Michael Phelps to be the most decorated Olympian in the world against all odds and despite countless times he appeared to try to take himself out of the running, that independent maverick spirit made him the most incredible winner in history.

And so that was what everyone wanted to hear. He began with a story.

Strife on Ice

“You should keep me in the pool so I never get hurt. I’m bad on land.”

On November 8, 2007, Michael Phelps was pumped. Three years after his stunning four-gold victory in Athens, it was less than a year before the 2008 Olympics. Every morning by 9:00 am, he completed the first part of a trifecta of swim sessions that would log nine miles at the day’s end. It was the same routine day in and day out as Bowman told him it would be, including Sundays and birthdays.

To put that into perspective, legendary quarterback Tom Brady only works out from about 3 to 5 pm daily during football season. In the off-season, he likes to surf. That means that by 9:01 am. Phelps has had put in more practice than Brady gets the entire day, although the Olympian still has six more miles to go before he sleeps.

The experts will assure you that his record breaking twenty three gold medals are the upside of such a rigorous schedule. Of course, they neglect to mention a downside — it leaves little room for anything else, including family or friends. Those emotional needs can pop up by surprise and rudely demand like a child for attention, especially during the off-season. Perhaps Phelps should have taken up surfing like Brady because that is what kept happening in between the gold.

With six gold medals picked up in Athens adorning his chiseled torso, he was tantalizingly close to surpassing Mark Spitz’s 1972 record of seven golds. Now it was time to think seriously about the future, leaving Spitz where he belonged, in the big book of broken records.

His rapid ascent from the youngest Olympian at fifteen to a six-time gold medalist in four years was a testament to his extraordinary talent and the unpredictable nature of Olympic competition. The reality was that the mightiest fall and lesser contenders triumph. In the London 2012 Olympics, when Phelps was bested by his friend and rival Ryan Lochte in the 400-meter individual medley, finishing fourth, it became all too true. If it’s your turn, you win. Then tomorrow, someone else.

The point is that anything is possible in the Olympics. To be sure every aspect of his game was at its peak, Phelps came to the University of Michigan to be reunited with his mentor Bob Bowman, now head swim coach of the Wolverine swim program. Bowman was to coaching what General Patton was to war — the winningest in history. In the space of three years, Bowman had racked up 50 All-America honors and 37 Big Ten titles. But the next hurdle would be the biggest for him and his protege.

Phelps and Bowman were two sides of the same career coin, both skilled professionals whose success mutually enhanced one another. But the real secret went deeper than gold medals. Phelps’ success wasn’t because he is the most excellent swimmer in history, which he most certainly is when the elements are in place; but that he is the most inspire-able, and that he found the world’s greatest swim coach knew how to inspire him. Putting those two together in the same pool meant anything was possible. That fact would never be more critical than in the Beijing Olympics, but not for reasons anyone could have guessed.

Out of Bounds

Bob Bowman is a force to be reckoned with, known as a take-no-prisoners coach in or out of the pool. As his protege, Phelps understood that Coach Bowman’s every instruction was to be followed to the letter. By early fall, Bowman had him on a grueling daily training regimen, an intense trifecta of two-hour swims. He had three daily sessions starting at six o’clock each morning, followed by weight lifting, recovery ice baths, stretching, and massage.

To the swimming cognoscenti, Phelps had one glaring weakness. It’s his ‘land game’ and concerns the time off the starting blocks. A slow dive can make a second or two difference in an event where the winner is ahead by 1/100th of a second. Phelps was among the slowest to leap into the pool and had to make up for lost time after he was in the water.

The other problem was less pronounced. If you closely examine Phelps’ fantastic physique, you would not be faulted for thinking he is a perfect specimen. But therein lies his other “land” problem. “Phelps is one of the weakest swimmers we’ve ever measured,” according to Genadijus Sokolovas, the director of physiology for USA Swimming. Bowman pushed back. “How strong would an Olympic weightlifter be if we tested him in the water? Michael could train for strength on land, but how relevant is that?”

Bowman meant that Phelps used more than just strength to coast to a victory. He wasn’t overly concerned because Phelps does not rely on raw power and speed, but as with cars, horsepower is only one part of the equation. Balance and agility are the other. Phelps’ hands and feet are like paddles in the water, and he has a potent kick and understands how to use his body to its full advantage. It is why Bowman put his Olympian on a grueling weight training program.

Still, there were compensations to his routine. He could listen to music all morning with the help of waterproof headphones, and a second benefit, with his calorie burn, he could eat with total abandon.

According to the IOC, Phelps required as much as 3,000 calories per meal to maintain strength and stamina for his 6’4 frame and 165 lb. weight. For breakfast, he would inhale three fried egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions, and mayonnaise. Then he consumed a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, and three chocolate-chip pancakes. He devoured a pound of pasta and two large ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread with mayo for lunch. He then drank about 1,000 calories worth of energy drinks.

It seemed to Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman that the system was foolproof and that the Olympian was on his way to another victory. Once again, however, Michael Phelps would learn a hard lesson.

There was no such thing as a free lunch.

Broken Wing

When asked how he spends his days, Phelps told reporters, “Eat, sleep, and swim; that’s all I can do.” It wasn’t just clever. It was prophetic. Anyone who can get into a trancelike zone where they can swim 50 miles per week and do little else is liable to trip up somewhere. That’s more or less what happened around lunchtime as clouds gathered overhead, and the parking lot was covered in a transparent frozen mass Michigan locals call black ice.

You can imagine the hunger pangs as he approached the parking lot around lunchtime to drive to a favorite restaurant. Right after the morning sun had melted the frost, the cloud cover promptly froze it again. That was Michigan winter for you, a world where Phelps was, once again, a stranger in a strange land.

He walked over to the Wolverine Aquatic Center parking lot so he and a friend could drive to lunch together. He started to climb into the car when his right foot betrayed him and slipped on the ice. Attempting to break the fall with his hand, Phelps’ athletic frame bore down with a crunch.

Raising himself off the ground, he noticed a rapid discoloration like a lousy sunburn spreading across the wrist. A chilling realization cast its shadow as he whispered in disbelief, ‘Oh my God, I might not be able to…’ As the detective novels say, that is when the plot thickens.

The plans for Beijing vanished in a second. Phelps’ voice faded. Now, there was only pain and silence. Phelps knew better than anyone that the wrist is a fulcrum for an Olympic swimmer. It balances the flipping motion of the hands and rotational power in the forearms. It is where torque happens, that phenomenon Archimedes first spoke of when he said, “Give me a lever, and I will move the Earth.”

The problem was that they took away Phelps’ lever.

The surgeons wanted to put a pin in Phelps’s scaphoid fracture to hold it together. That meant six weeks in dry dock. Then, three months of getting back to form. It would take until March for him to reclaim the shape he was already in. By that time, every Olympic competitor would be four months ahead. “I got emotional,” he says. “If I didn’t have a shot at swimming the way I knew I could have, what was the point in going through with it?”

When asked by reporters how it happened, Phelps admitted: “I am a fish out of water,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I was falling. I went to catch myself, and I tweaked it.”

Later, Bowman admitted Phelps was as upset as he had ever seen him. “He was devastated.”

Phelps quietly agreed, “It’s over. I’m finished.”

No Arguments

The tagline of the 1977 movie Rockie, written by Sylvester Stallone, was “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” Michael Phelps was that guy now. The drama he was facing was the stuff of a sports movie. Coach Bob Bowman tried to put a positive spin on it, telling the Detroit Free Press he was not worried. We took the extra step of having a procedure done to strengthen the bone.”

The swift decision to implant pins in his wrist was like a high-stakes gamble, but it paid off, sidelining the swimming maestro for ten days. During this forced hiatus, Phelps became an unwilling passenger on a stationary bike. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to ride one again,” he quipped, half-jokingly recalling the saddle sores that have left a permanent imprint on his memory.

Bowman grabbed Phelps and said, “Look, if you hope to have a chance, you will do everything my way now. No arguments, no second-guessing.”

Bowman and Phelps had been an odd couple since they met when Phelps was eleven years old, and Bowman saw something special. From then on, their lives were joined together, but not always their strong-willed minds. Both were not what people would call easygoing and had fixed opinions on swim strokes to poker hands. But Phelps knew Bowman was on the money. He had not felt this lost since the time his father left home.

No one else could take his broken wing and make it fly again. They agreed. It was time to risk: “We certainly got into it a lot over the years, and we will again, but he’s been more than a father to me,” says Phelps, “and to have someone there, saying ‘this was possible’ — it was a huge lift.”

Hind Parts

Phelps also juggled weights in his good hand as if he were a weight lifter in a one-handed circus act. And then there were the ab workouts — endless, relentless, and designed by someone who mistook his midsection for iron. Back in the pool, Phelps’s injured hand felt like a piece of driftwood. “I couldn’t grip and move the water properly,” he confessed. It was a bizarre twist for a man who, in water, usually felt more at home than on land. The sensation of not being in complete command of his element was both odd and unsettling.

Meanwhile, in the background, ever the taskmaster, Coach Bowman morphed into a drill sergeant, pushing Phelps to the brink of exhaustion — and then some. When Phelps asked for a break, Bowman demanded more. Their exchanges resembled a verbal tennis match:

Phelps would shout from the pool: Fuck that, you don’t know how I fucking feel!

Bowman shouted from the deck: I don’t care how you feel. Do it anyway.

The poolside echoed with an intense love-hate, mentor-disciple, goal-driven banter, with every lap a testament to the swimmer’s unwavering resolve and Bowman’s take-no-prisoners attitude. This wasn’t training; it was a battle against the odds and against every demon who had dared to cross paths with the coach or Olympian.


One thing separates Phelps from other extraordinary athletes—his willingness to seek help from his mentors to improve the odds. While swimming may be a solo sport, Phelps is among the most coachable of super athletes. His mentors include his mother, Debbie Phelps, coach Bob Bowman, and his agent, Peter Carlisle. He relies on them for guidance and a kind of reassurance therapy, and they act as a system of checks and balances — against his less valuable tendencies. For Phelps, mentorship is a coping mechanism that balances the stress against his raging ambition to win on such a challenging playing field.

Although Coach Bowman realized his client had to lay off swimming, that didn’t mean he had to stay out of the pool. The wrist did not deter the formidable swimmer from jumping back in the pool one week after surgery. “I’ve had a rocky start so far, but I was able to get back into the water the next day,” he said. “We’ve just been cautious, just taking things very carefully to make sure it heals so I can return to 100 percent by trials.”

It turned out the timing wasn’t so bad. Phelps was thankful the mishap did not come near the start of his major training push toward Beijing. “The timing wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either,” Phelps said. “If it was any later, it would have put us strapped for time and called for desperate measures. But I feel fine right now.”

When the incision healed, he got back in the water, doing laps. How does a swimmer propel himself without using his arms? To Bowman, that was simple. Phelps used his legs. After 12 weeks, he was not just a great swimmer but had turned into an amphibian, an animal with two modes of existence: in the water and on land.

Sore Loser

Next January, at the Olympic Training Center in the frost-kissed January air of Colorado Springs. Michael Phelps found himself in what he dubbed “the pivotal moment” of a three-week saga of unexpected defeats, where the titan of the pool was outdone by rivals he’d usually left in his wake. “I felt like I was swimming with a piano on my back,” he remarked. For Phelps, losing was as foreign as swimming in molasses, which appeared to be what he was doing.

What irked him most wasn’t losing; it was losing to the kind of swimmer he called ‘Sammy Save-ups.’ Phelps, usually a colossus of calm, admits he “kind of lost it” occasionally. He’d go to his cabin and throw things around, screaming at himself and anyone who crossed his path in what could only be described as monumental hissy fits. Thankfully, his roommate, Erik Vendt, played the role of the calming mate, bringing Phelps back from the edge of insanity. He’d apologize to those he laid into. But a demon was lying in wait for him.

His intensity concealed a storm brewing under the surface. He was in pain, and what was worse, he could not imagine that his times were going to improve. This period of regression was, paradoxically, Phelps’s secret to becoming faster, better — though he couldn’t see it then. As he prepared to dive back into the water each day, Phelps was motivated and haunted by a newspaper clipping by five-time gold medalist Ian Thorpe — the ‘Thorpedo’ claiming that eight gold medals were a bridge too far for Phelps.

But what transpired between that challenging moment and August was miraculous. “I did 95 percent of what Bob asked me to do,” Phelps says with a knowing smile, reflecting on his coach’s rigorous regime. His life became a triathlon of eating like a titan, sleeping like a bear, and swimming like, well, Phelps, as much as thirteen miles a day. Hours upon hours, mile after mile, in the pool — a relentless pursuit of excellence.

Then he went to Beijing.

Butterfly Effect

Fast forward nine months. On August 14, 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Phelps faced intense competition. Serbian gold medalist Milorod Cavic was favored to win the 100-meter fly. Čavić had already broken the 100-meter Olympic Record during the preliminary heats, finishing ahead of Phelps, and also recorded the fastest time in the semi-finals.

With less than one lap to finish, Phelps was a complete stroke behind, and he appeared to be conceding the top spot. It was too much of a lead to squander, not against a swimmer like Cavic. Most of the Olympic judges believed the contest was over.

Ordinarily, Phelps can move at a pace of two meters per second or 13 seconds for the length of a 25-meter pool (his record). But after an accident, you hope to compete, not to win, and any other swimmer would realize it was time to slow down and baby the wrist for another match. Silver isn’t a sour finish. There will be other events in the days ahead. Why take a chance?

Of note, Phelps’ 28 medals include only three silver and two bronze. That tells you where his head zone is at. Winning is his only reality, not coming in second. He‘s been betting against the odds since his third-grade teacher told Debbie Phelps he could never succeed at anything. But how do you rally when a pin holds your arm together?

Phelps’ underwater dolphin kicks were one the main reasons he would take home eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. When he was racing against Cavic, he did precisely that. Eight dolphin kicks off almost every one of his walls. According to Vice Magazine, who researched the effect of kicking on swim times, dolphin kicks are faster than swimming on the surface. The faster you swim, the more wave resistance increases. So simply powering through on the surface isn’t the most efficient swim style. Swimming underwater has become so popular that it’s now only legal to swim underwater for just 15 meters after diving into the pool or doing the turn.

Phelps already had the best kick in Olympic swimming. But the added strength from his kick training became evident at the end of each lap. When he completed his turn, the new dolphin kick gave him a boost other swimmers could not imagine — the London Times reported that during the last five meters, an exhausted Milorad Cavic was dragging his legs. Phelps turbocharged kick was strong enough to get to the wall first — and Čavić came in second to Phelps by one-hundredth of a second in the final.

It was Phelps’ seventh gold medal of the Olympiad. The Serbian team initially challenged the result, but the FINA and Omega timekeeping officials later confirmed that Čavić indeed arrived first — but it was Phelps who, in the milliseconds after touching the wall, applied more force to trigger an electronic touchpad first. His legs carried him over the line.

Čavić wrote in his blog: “People, this is the greatest moment of my life. I’ve accepted defeat, and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been”. That was Phelps’ eighth gold medal in Beijing. Phelps had just broken the 36-year-old record set in 1972 by Mark Spitz to become the winningest athlete in Olympic Games history.

“This is all a dream come true,” he said, “I accomplished all I wanted to do. It’s been one fun week, that’s for sure.”

Coach Bowman added, “The tremendous setback (with the broken wrist)…without it, Michael would not have won the race.”

In April 2008, Bowman announced that he would resign as a head coach at U-M to return to Maryland as the CEO of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Michael Phelps would follow him there to train for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Who’s Your Daddy?

“I wanted Michael to be uncomfortable. I knew how much attention he would generate.” — Peter Carlisle.

Phelps earns as much as $7 million from sponsorships and endorsements annually thanks to his agent’s knack for keeping the Phelps’ flame ablaze in the public's mind. Based in Maine, Peter Carlisle is a realist who sees his role in two interconnected parts: making the lives of Olympians richer and making their half-lives longer.

When Phelps met Carlisle at age sixteen in 2002, he felt drawn to him almost immediately because he was impressed by the first question,

“What do you want out of your career?”

No one asked Phelps that before. Phelps answered what any sixteen-year-old would say: he wanted to be a world champion, stand for something, and make a lot of money. After reflecting momentarily, Carlisle explained in great logic and detail how Phelps could get there.

Carlisle laid a veritable roadmap that made great sense. Carlisle seemed more like a coach than a slick Hollywood agent. That was the day they formed a tag team.

It was a series of strategic moves about as close to three-dimensional chess as anything Phelps had imagined. “Do this to position yourself for that; skip one event to be ready for another that was more important.” Leapfrogging, side shuffling, and caroming past the competition until victory was at hand was Phelps’ job; watching out for moguls was Carlisle’s, and there would be some mighty big ones.

Think about Olympians for a moment. They’ve got a short fuse that gets lit once every four years. They splash or crash — and that determines the lifetime earning potential. Carlisle sees his primary job as making the most of a short window of peak marketability.

When you think of what can go wrong, it can make the most muscular athlete slightly shaky. Let’s also recognize that even if they dodge the injury bullet, they will eventually get knocked off by some teenage upstart. It makes Carlisle, by definition, a warm blanket in a business where a cold wind blows it with an astonishing chill, and today’s hotshot is tomorrow’s old news.

So, what was the first item on Carlisle’s to-do list? Phelps had to undergo media training to handle the spotlight.

“I wanted him to be uncomfortable, feel the pressure. I knew how much attention he was going to generate.” In reality, he had no idea.

Carlisle‘s job was to keep his eye on the stuff that throws a mean punch, like off-year downers and occasional bouts of depression, typical to all great athletes. Then there were thorny legal entanglements, Phelps’ specialty. With sidewinders of fate appearing out of nowhere and hitting with devastating force, Carlisle felt he needed to be on watch.

It turned out to be not only practical advice but prophetic.

Cry For Help

“10 major stories are going into the Olympics, and 10 are coming out of the games. Sometimes they’re not the same.” — Peter Carlisle.

On September 30, 2014, a text from Phelps had Carlisle worried. He began frantically dialing the swimmer’s mother to break some bad news. Her famous son had been arrested for speeding and DUI. He knew Debbie well, had represented her and understood that this latest fiasco might crush her. Her talented son had been her pet project, and she nursed him from a broken home to breaking world records.

What he didn’t say to her at the time was that the text from Michael ominously read: “I don’t want to be alive anymore,’ as later reported by The New York Times. Phelps was more profound in a deeper funk than Carlisle had ever seen. Phelps had so much to live for, but so much was at stake. His life as a champion did not extend far beyond the quadrennial gala called the Olympics.

To maintain a steady stroke and buoyancy outside the pool was, at times, an unbearable kind of pressure. He often needed to let go, to be something other than the greatest, to be lost in normality where overdrinking and speeding happen. However, Carlisle wasn’t a therapist, no matter how much his clients treated him like one. He was a fixer, and so he set about to fix things.

Whenever Peter Carlisle isn’t thinking about his client, he ponders the mysteries of an Olympian who fights relentlessly against the forces of nature only to get lost in the crowd's roar. Perhaps that is too sentimental for the rough-and-tumble world of celebrity athletes. But it was the world that bound the two of them inextricably together.

The most dangerous event in Olympic sports is not the slope-style slalom, an event that leaves 37% of snowboarders sustaining severe injuries. It is the one leap guaranteed to injure 100% of athletes, for which there is no shortage of takers, and the one Carlisle fears most, the race for the gold and what happens after it has been discovered.

Three years before Carlisle and I arranged our interview, it became clear that there was no mountain Michael Phelps couldn’t climb when he was in the pool, but on land, there was no mogul he couldn’t stumble over. It goes back to his maverick tendency to upset the status quo while winning but just as keenly to veer away from his perfect score while driving.

The world first learned about the slip-up in 2014 when Carlisle received a text with seven ominous words, according to The New York Times:[AL6]

When Icarus crashes, Daedalus springs into gear. First, Carlisle had to break the arrest news to Debbie Phelps before the news got out. (Carlisle has represented Debbie in the past, as well as Bowman.) Then, he had to deal with his manically depressed client. But there was an even bigger problem. It was his second offense. A rap sheet was added to his many accolades, and the Olympic Committee wouldn’t take too kindly to that. USA Swimming soon issued a written statement against the athlete and his ‘irresponsible’ actions.

USA Swimming said in a statement:

“The news regarding Michael Phelps and his actions is disappointing and serious. We expect our athletes to conduct themselves responsibly in and out of the pool.”

USA Swimming suspended him for six months for violating its code of conduct. The most decorated Olympian in history crawled under his bunk in his Baltimore home, where he spent five days staring at the walls. According to Sports Illustrated, Phelps curled into “a fetal position, embarrassed at his behavior and uncertain of his future.” He had good reasons. The height from which he had fallen was nothing short of Icarian, and it appeared to be permanent.

“I don’t want to be alive anymore.”

As we dug into the story, we saw a pattern. Michael Phelps lived life from one Olympic contest to another from 2004 to 2016 with a yin-yang rhythm every time he landed another victory. It manifested as a nerve disorder in which signals during Olympic events are clear but suddenly blocked for the post-game show. The problem went undiagnosed for most of his golden career because there were two Michaels. One wasn’t sure whether he fit in the world the other had carved out, a place in the sun.

When Phelps was arrested for his DUI in 2014, he sent Carlisle a text: “I don’t want to be alive anymore,” it said, according to The New York Times. Carlisle broke the news of the arrest to Debbie Phelps, Layden wrote. (Carlisle has represented Debbie in the past, as well as Bowman.) After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, Carlisle helped arrange safe lodging in Rio for some of his friends.

Looking back, his swim coach, Bob Bowman, was not surprised:

“We created a monster, and after Beijing, it was too big to fail,” Bowman said. “We had to do whatever we could to keep it going. That’s how we got to London. The deal with his dad, how to come to grips with his fame, those kinds of things, I thought, we’ll deal with later.”

Phelps described his decline as inevitable: “We dreamed the biggest dream we could, and we got there. What do we do now?”

In 2009, a photograph surfaced of Phelps smoking from a marijuana pipe. The picture was taken at a small private gathering where Phelps believed he was among friends. After that, Bowman said, Phelps changed. He became warier, wearier.

Bowman could not reach him. Neither could Phelps’s mother, Debbie. He refused to take her calls or answer the door when she went to his house to check on him. “I was just pushing people away,” Phelps said.

An old saying from ancient Greece tells us we must maintain our balance against adverse conditions. The origin is from the Temple of Apollo, on which was inscribed, “nothing in excess.” The myth of a father and son attempting to fly bears the point. One reached too high for too long, trying to touch the sun only to tumble tragically down to earth. It was a story that Michael Phelps seemed to be acting out.

When you manage the career of a statistical aberration like Michael Phelps, the first job is to convince him that his greatness in the arena is not a perishable commodity. As he competes against the strongest and fittest and most talented men and women in the world for a small square called triumph, the task seems Herculean, but Carlisle works to make Phelps understand that he’s Hercules, not an imposter in a Speedo swimsuit. That also means he needs to be Hercules on land and in the water.

Carlisle explained what Phelps had to do: face up to the media, get his family behind him, and enter a rehab program.

Phelps said to the public: “I’m extremely sorry for this. . . . That’s all I can say right now.” That was it.

“I was thoroughly ashamed,” he wrote four years later in an autobiography. “I felt I’d gone from . . . being on top of the world . . . to being in the deepest black hole.”

The worst part was that he had made his mother cry. He had never seen her that upset.

“If you looked at Michael like an onion,” says his wife Nicole after Phelps entered a therapy program, “layers have been peeled back.” And the core of Michael Phelps has been reached and examined.

The Attention Game

Phelps’s early struggles in life loomed more significant than the daunting challenges he later faced in and outside of Olympic competition. It is even possible that they prepared him for brutal adversaries in the pool, but once he was away from swimming, where his strokes weren’t meticulously coached, he would fall so far it was hard to tell which way was up.

“I simply couldn’t sit still because it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time,” Phelps recalls in his autobiography, Beneath the Surface. “I had to be in the middle of everything.”

Described as a fidgety young boy with a pen perpetually spinning between his fingers and an attention span as fleeting as a ripple, Phelps was a mischief-maker who liked being the center of attention. In science class, he turned on all the natural gas burners so that the smell would bug his classmates. He signed up to juggle at a school talent show, knowing he didn’t know how.

On reflection, as early as kindergarten, Phelps had trouble with inattention. An exasperated teacher finally informed his mother, herself a teacher, “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.”

“That just hit my heart,” says Debbie Phelps in an interview. “It made me want to prove everyone wrong. I knew that if I collaborated with Michael, he could achieve anything he set his mind to.”

Phelps, as everyone knows, who followed his career, was later diagnosed with ADHD, an emotional and mental illness first observed back in 1798 by a Scottish physician from Edinburgh, Sir Alexander Crichton. His practice was focused on ‘insanity,’ but he became increasingly interested in Attention. He described the symptoms of what would be called ADHD as:

1. The incapacity of attending with a necessary degree of constancy to any object.

2. A total suspension of its effects on the brain.

Crichton could have been writing about Phelps:

“Symptoms become evident at a very early period of life and have a terrible effect since it renders him incapable of attending with constancy to any one object of education.” But he also allowed some optimism into the picture: “But it seldom is in so great as totally to impede all instruction; and what is very fortunate, it is generally diminished with age.”

The irony is that two hundred years ago, a Scottish doctor realized more accurately than an elementary school teacher in our era that there was a cure for Phelps. But the reality was Phelps was a challenge, and after his parents divorced at age nine, his symptoms became nearly uncontrollable.

Father and Son

Phelps and his father, Fred, were very close until the divorce. After all, they were the two ‘men’ in the family, which included Phelps’ adorable and talented twin older sisters. But after Fred Phelps departed the scene, they only bonded through sports. His father recalled taking Phelps to Baltimore Orioles home games. His law enforcement ties allowed him to gain access to the clubhouse.

According to Sports Illustrated, Fred Phelps found it as challenging to be the divorced father of three children as his adolescent son found it to be the product of divorced parents. Mostly, Fred remembers an inevitable divorce and then trying the best he could. “I bought a boat specifically to do things with the kids,” he says. “The girls never liked the boat very much, but Michael and I went fishing all the time, caught rockfish out on the Chesapeake. We went to ball games. It was wonderful.”

But something changed. Neither father nor son understood it, but their relationship began to fray when Phelps grew into adolescence, a typical period when a son began to rebel. At the same time, it was when Michael Phelps started to excel — in the pool.

“What happened after that,’ Fred Phelps commented, “I couldn’t tell you. I felt like Michael started looking at me as some ogre. We started to separate.”

Another reason that Phelps struggled was that once his swimming career grew more successful, given the grueling swim regimen, his father became a shadowy figure. It finally led to complete estrangement (the two reconnected before his father died in 2022 when Phelps invited Fred to visit him at the rehab treatment center in 2014 for a family week).

Michael similarly confessed his feelings, “I felt abandoned. I have an amazing mother and two amazing sisters. But I would have liked to have a father in my life, and I’ve been carrying that around for 20 years.”

The loss of Fred Phelps also led to Michael’s loss of identity. After all, he was named Michael Fred Phelps II. Now, there was no original, no one to emulate, no one to feel a bond with, and with the loss of his role model, he began a series of stumbles that became life-threatening.

For Phelps, losing his father’s affection seemed to manifest unconsciously in a recurring dream. It had something to do with snakes and began after his parents divorced. “They would appear suddenly in my path, and I would freak out,” he said. He says, “As I began to grasp that my dad would be away for a long time, I needed something to grab my attention.”

Mother Lode

Phelps’s mother taught middle school for over two decades and knew part of the answer was getting him the extra attention he needed. “Whenever a teacher would say, ‘Michael can’t do this,’ I’d counter with, ‘Well, what are you doing to help him?’” she recalled.

After Michael grabbed a classmate’s paper, Debbie suggested he sit at his table. When he moaned about how much he hated reading, she started handing him the sports section of the paper or books about sports. Noticing Michael’s attention strayed during math, she hired a tutor and encouraged him to use word problems tailored to Michael’s interests. His example was prophetic: “How long would it take to swim 500 meters if you swim three meters per second?”

Debbie Phelps, the granddaughter of a coal miner who became a school principal, was born in a railroad town and is the type who has a mantra for every occasion. “You take every moment of your life, and you make use of it.” After not getting a response from the school, she turned to an unorthodox solution, enrolling Michael in a swim program that would transform a restless child into an unparalleled champion and rewrite the annals of Olympic history.

Built To Win

While at nine years old, Phelps couldn’t sit through a class without fidgeting; he could swim for up to three hours, Debbie Phelps told Everyday Health.

The reason why Phelps was suddenly able to focus in the pool has to do with a peculiar symptom of ADHD. Ironically, it is the opposite of the usual symptom, distractibility. According to professionals at Harvard Medical School, children with ADHD can develop a common — but confusing — symptom: the ability to zero in intensely on an exciting project or activity for hours at a time.

And so began Michael Phelps’s intense focus on swimming. But to make all the elements work, one other factor is hardly mentioned.

Three miles from where Phelps lived was a large, nondescript building that looked like a smallish strip mall. The North Baltimore Aquatic Center was no ordinary community pool. It was, in fact, the most successful public swim program of its kind, the NY Yankees of swim teams. Known for sending eight young swimmers to the Olympics and six returning with gold medals, the NBAC took ordinary swimmers and turned them into stars.

By 1996, the center’s head swim coach asked Debbie and Fred Phelps to meet him in the babysitting room of the swim center. There, he told them that their son could make the Olympics.

Both Fred and Debbie Phelps were shaking their heads. In fairness to Debbie and Fred Phelps’s skepticism, when they first thought of enrolling Michael in a swim club, it was so that he could learn to focus. They were hardly thinking of the Olympics.

“This is my prediction,” Bowman explained: “By 2000, Michael should be in the audience at the U.S. Olympic trials, just getting the feel of big-time national competition.”

“In 2004, he’ll probably make his first Olympics,” the coach said. “Two thousand-eight will probably be a better Olympics for him, [and] 2012 . . . will be his best Olympic ever.”

Debbie Phelps, who tells the story, was stunned. “Bob,” she replied. “He’s 11 years old.” How could the coach foretell the boy’s life so far into the future?

As it turned out, Bowman was off by a few years.

At the 2000 trials, Michael Phelps wasn’t just another spectator in the crowd; he was an Olympian athlete in the pool and made more than waves. At just 15, he made the team; he earned his spot to compete in the Sydney Olympics. As the youngest U.S. Olympian since 1932, he clinched a fifth-place finish in the 200-meter butterfly.

The coach warned them it would require sacrifices. It meant that for Phelps, there was only one life, that of a competitive swimmer. Phelps would be in the pool by six AM every morning of the year. Then again in the late afternoon. Seven days a week. And Phelps would have to give up other sports. They had yet to learn what was in store, and neither did Michael Phelps.

When Phelps first jumped in the pool, as he recalled, the only thing he felt was how do I get out? “I was scared to put my head underwater, so I started with the backstroke,” Phelps told The New York Times. Then he added, “I was scared because I don’t think I had goggles.”

“You would think that on the first day I hit the water, I just sort of turned into a dolphin and never wanted to leave the pool,” he wrote in Beneath the Surface. “No way. I hated it. We’re talking screaming, kicking, fit-throwing, goggle-tossing hate.”

With practice, Phelps found his comfort zone: “Once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free.” He recalls, “I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, partly because being in the pool slowed down my mind.”

“In the water, I felt in control for the first time.”

The result was that by age 10, Phelps was a nationally ranked-swimmer. By age 11, NBAC’s swim coach Bob Bowman, an intimidating authority figure who wasn’t afraid to make Phelps do whatever it took, took him aside and laid down the law.

“Bob and I didn’t seem like a good match. I was the goofball; he was the taskmaster,” Phelps recalls—the two butted heads. But Bowman saw winning potential in Phelps. “Bob was very frank about my talents, attitude, inconsistent focus, and dueling moments of indifference and determination. He also said I had a realistic opportunity other kids didn’t have.”

That registered with Phelps.

The transformation in his demeanor was immediate. It was the first time in his life he felt encouraged and admired. By the time Michael Phelps was eleven, he went from a fear of putting his face underwater to catching the attention of the most successful trainer in history.

For his part, Phelps returned the compliment:

“Everything that I learned in the early stages of my career was things that I almost perfected or sharpened throughout my career,” Phelps said. “The goal setting that I was taught at the age of 11.

“I think that’s where the Olympic dream started from,” Phelps recalled in the onstage conversation with fellow Olympic gold-medal swimmer Rowdy Gaines. Bowman told him to write his goals down on a sheet of paper. “I said I wanted to win an Olympic medal,” and “he said, ‘Okay, in four years, you can do that.’”

“He showed me confidence. He believed in me,” Phelps said. “When you tell a kid, ‘I can put you on the Olympic team in four years,’ who’s not going to say okay? … So I listened to what he told me for four years. I made my first Olympic team. At 15 years old.”

At the Athens Olympics, however, the swimmer was ticked off to receive a piece of paper congratulating him for coming in fifth place. “I’m not going to get a piece of paper. I’m going for a medal, that’s it,” he said.

At a time when other athletes would typically take a break, Bowman told Phelps he’d get back in the water and start training the next day “because, in six months, you’re going to break a world record.”

Phelps was ready to get started. “We were trying to do something no one else had ever done. … Guess what happened in six months? I broke the world record.”

The Midas Curse

“One gold medal is my goal.”

— Michael Phelps before the 2004 Athens Games

To understand the astonishing scope of Phelps’ achievements, reviewing his unparalleled achievements in the Olympics from 2004 to 2016 may be helpful. For the record:

Phelps’ march to Olympic stardom began in 2000 at the Sydney Games as a mere 15-year-old. It made Phelps the youngest male Olympian since 1932. Finishing fifth in the 200m butterfly was the last time he would be out of the gold in his career.

By the time the 2004 Athens Olympics arrived, in the ancient city where the modern Games were born in 1896, Phelps had transformed. He took home six gold medals and, from that moment, began to redefine excellence.

Beijing 2008 saw his star ascend to heights previously thought unreachable. Clinching an unprecedented eight gold medals, it set a new Olympic world record.

The London 2012 Olympics showcased Phelps’ unwavering commitment yet once again. He added to his impressive tally four more gold medals and two silver.

Finally, at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Phelps’ swan song, he added six more medals to his collection — a testament to enduring excellence, resulting in a magnificent career finale.

“He’s shooting for the stars. One of the last things I ever want is to step in front of his aim. I never want to do that. Ride that rocket while it’s running, baby,” he said. “Take it. Take the ride.” — Fred Phelps.

Gold Plated Glory

Speaking of Olympic gold, the medals aren’t pure gold. They’re at least 92.5% silver with a gold plating of around 6 grams. It means much energy and sacrifice goes into less than a grand’s worth. That included Phelps’ relationship with his father.

Gold was first discovered by ancient Egyptians around 2450 B.C. An alchemist found the shiny yellow metal in Nubia, and it quickly became prized for luxurious ornaments. The oldest surviving example dates back to the 8th century B.C. The owner’s name was familiar. He was named King Midas, a father who unintentionally brought turmoil into his child's life because he was obsessed with his gold.

It may have been a clue.

But in the realm of the Olympics, counting gold is a hallowed custom. The best measure for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is based on the number of gold medals (silver and bronze break a tie). Generally, the country with the most also leads in the total medal count, though there are exceptions like the 1896, 1912, and 1964 Olympics, and in 2008, when the U.S. topped the total medal tally but not the gold.

Nearly 2,800 years ago, the ancient Olympic Games kicked off, as you may have guessed by now, in Olympia, Greece. Held every four years from 776 BC to 393AD, they attracted many participants from all corners of the Greek world, and the stadium held 45,000 people.

The games were not so different then, with the exception of women. There is a record of a Spartan princess who became the first female Olympic champion in chariot races. The other distinction was the consequence of making a false start or committing a foul: getting flogged.

When Greece fell under Roman rule, the ancient Games were banned as pagan festivals. It would be more than 1,500 years before the Olympics experienced a revival in Athens in 1896, which coincidentally introduced the world’s first marathon. It also featured four other sports: athletics, gymnastics, fencing, and swimming. Before 1908, swimming occurred in the open ocean during the first modern Olympics 1896 held in Athens.

The winner was a Hungarian swimmer named Alfréd Hajós, who secured the first of two gold medals in swimming history.[AL5] Hajós reflected on 13* C or 55* F conditions, saying, “I must say that I shivered from the thought of what would happen if I got a cramp from the cold water. My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.” Michael Phelps seemed to have the opposite reaction. His desire to win may have overcome his desire to live. Ironically, Hajos started to swim at age 13 because of his father, who drowned in the Danube River.

Father-son stories follow the Olympics.

Peeling Back The Onion

Whitney Phelps said of her brother. “He has this fire burning inside of him that keeps him going.”

Experts who discuss Michael Phelps’ remarkable success highlight his physical attributes. Standing at 6’4”, Phelps possesses the ideal height for swimming, which grants him extended arms and a longer torso. His extraordinary arm span of 6’7” sets him apart from the crowd. It is like he is an assembled Lego set, with all the right pieces seamlessly fitting together to create a champion. Yet, in the world of NBA basketball, where only about 30 out of 450 players stand over 7 feet tall, we realize that physical attributes are only part of the story in competitive sports.

Then there are his hands, the size of baseball gloves and size 14 feet, which act as flippers for propulsion. His ankles display remarkable flexibility, resembling the fluid fin-like movements of a great white whale.

Phelps’s body chemistry plays its role as well. Scientists found that Phelps produces significantly less lactic acid, generating only about half the amount of his competitors. This trait allows him to experience quicker recovery and maintain longer endurance.

People who write about Phelps’ achievements usually end there, making it clear that with those advantages, what else would you expect than a winning streak that made history? But the truth is far from that. It isn’t even close, for that matter.

Because winning at the highest level is much more than natural attributes and body chemistry, the things that make Phelps an Olympic phenomenon are a combination of exceptional physical attributes, reduced lactic acid production, and an unparalleled commitment to training and endurance, and then is that last but all vital ingredient.

Every inch of Phelps’ remarkable body is designed for speed, except for the brain. That was intended to discover himself. It is how we found out that Phelps is more than an Olympian.

He’s a maverick who isn’t going to perform as expected all the time, not at age seven and not in the Olympics.


In an NBC interview, Phelps spoke about his transformation at The Meadows (for the record, one of my children attended the program).

“For the longest time,” Phelps confided, “I saw myself simply as a talented kid who swam back and forth in the pool. That’s it. Few people knew who I truly was.”

After his first two Olympics, Phelps was still entirely focused on swimming. However, things took a turn after his flawless performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Something was wrong. Something wasn’t happening for him. Following that remarkable year, Phelps began to spend more time away from the pool and question his identity.

It manifested itself in his need for preparation for the 2012 Olympics. He skipped practices, clashed with his coaches, and even when he did make it to the pool, he felt he wasn’t doing things correctly. “I just didn’t care anymore,” Phelps recalled.

Securing four gold medals and two silvers in the 2012 London Olympics would be fine for most of us. For Phelps, it was a letdown. He announced his retirement, which set off a chaotic and tumultuous period in his life.

He stopped working out for six consecutive months. His weight ballooned from 187 pounds to nearly 230 pounds, the heaviest he had ever been. “You couldn’t find an ab,” he lamented. And his substance abuse escalated.

“I still remember those days when I didn’t want to see anyone, talk to anyone, or even continue living,” Phelps shared. “I was on a fast track to the lowest point in my life, wherever that might be.”

Phelps acknowledged that he occasionally had thoughts about suicide.

The turning point came when Phelps was arrested for drunk driving, driving at 84 mph in a 45 mph zone. This arrest led him to seek rehabilitation, a decision he described as the “most scared I’ve ever been.”

Looking back, he was grateful for the transformation it brought to his perspective on life. Phelps proudly stated that he has not consumed alcohol since October 4, 2014.

Then, at 31, Phelps decided to return for one final Olympics. Despite already being the most decorated Olympian of all time, his motivation wasn’t solely about adding three more medals to his extensive collection. It was about proving to himself and the world that he was still Michael Phelps. He took home six gold medals in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Today, Phelps is in top physical condition — extra lean and muscled — and says he’s in the best shape since he won a record-setting eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Coach Bowman says he’s okay. Psychologically, Phelps needs to swim, he says. The sport Phelps turned his back on fills a psychic need he can’t fill elsewhere.

And now, “he’s in so much better place as a person, and therefore as an athlete,” his coach says. “I honestly never thought I’d see that again.”

Phelps came to Arizona State in 2015, following Bowman, who had been named head coach of the Sun Devil swim teams. Phelps then trained for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center at ASU. He immersed himself, even swimming in an exhibition race during an ASU meet. He married a few months before the Rio Olympics and had a son.

He talked about mental health, nature, and what he sees in the future.

“For me, mentally, to see sunshine and blue skies every day is awesome,” he said. “People always ask if I’m coming back, but I’m content with what I achieved in my swimming career.”

He talked about Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” where he competed in a simulated “race” against a great white shark. The shark beat him by two seconds. It may have been professional courage on Phelps’s part.

“I got whooped,” Phelps said. “That’s a butt beating to me. Instantly after the race, I tweeted, ‘Rematch!’ ”

He discussed his schedule. “Every day, I woke up at 5 or 6 in the morning to jump in a cold pool after being in a nice warm bed. It wasn’t fun, but I had goals I wanted to achieve. If you are going to be great, do things you don’t want to do. It was 365 days a year, 100,000 yards a week.”

He discussed his volatile path to glory: “I went through ups and downs personally, publicly, in the pool. There were times I was more dedicated than not.”

It’s OK not to be OK.”

He discussed mental health. In 2014, Phelps was in a dark place after facing his second charge of driving under the influence.

“I had no self-confidence, no self-love. I hated myself. I was at a place where I didn’t want to be alive anymore. It took me a long time to look in a mirror and like who I saw,” he said.

“That moment where I put my hand out for help, I found out who I am.”

Phelps started an eponymous foundation in 2008 that promotes water safety for kids. “I’ve been talking about mental health, destigmatizing it. I sat next to an 11-year-old boy the other day who wanted to kill himself,” Phelps said.

“I’ve been able to overcome these obstacles, but I didn’t do it alone. It’s okay to ask for help, and it’s okay not to be okay.”

Observing Michael Phelps’ journey from a distance, the story seems to follow a similar pattern. He has incredible preparation and discipline, competing at the highest level in history for the win and then slipping somehow for a trivial reason that threatens to interrupt all he has achieved.

It looks like a child’s inflatable toy — knocked down one day and invariably rising the next. His challenges oscillate with his athletic victories, finding triumph and setback year in and year out, occasionally ending in abject defeat that threatened to undermine his career.

Scrutinizing the pattern of highs and lows parallels the Taoist principle of yin and yang — a belief in the existence of opposite forces in shaping an individual’s character. This recurring theme raised a pivotal question. Was Phelps unconsciously sabotaging the success he fought so hard to attain, and why? Or was it Phelps’ way of reshaping a childhood narrative by turning it into a heroic saga? Did it represent a silent plea for help, or was it an assertion of liberation from a past trauma?

Delving into the enigma of the world’s most accomplished athlete, we discovered the interplay of the Five Messengers: mentors, mates, mantras, methods, and metrics. Ironically, Phelps is the most mentor-driven of our subjects, someone more naturally teachable than anyone else we encountered. However, these elements didn’t spontaneously align like Tibetan chimes.

Much like assembling a complex toy, it took time and effort to piece together the components that would eventually define Phelps’s extraordinary journey. He had to make many return visits to get them right finally.

Success at Phelps’ level can be an unhealthy affirmation of personal value. That’s usually when the gods of Mount Olympus begin to giggle away as they spill oil on the road ahead. Success is a game of achievement that quietly, without you noticing, turns into a game of illusion. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of you. They name their kids after you. They pay good money to hear what you ate for breakfast. Strangers who never gave you a second thought want to interview you. It is tough to resist the siren song of fame, especially when your childhood playmates were named stumble, rumble, and tumble. Even William Shakespeare lamented the burden of extreme success, “I would give all of my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”

“I vowed it would never happen again,” he wrote.

Return of the Prodigal Son

At the treatment center, he reached out to Bowman, his mother, his sisters, and his father, whom he invited to a family weekend.

Upon receiving the invitation letter, Fred Phelps almost immediately booked his travel. “That’s my baby boy,” he said, “so I was going to be there for him whether he cold-shouldered me or not.”

Since that weekend, Phelps and his father have kept in regular contact. When Phelps was on the plane traveling home from here in May for the birth of his first child, a son, Boomer, he exchanged texts with his father. Since their rapprochement, Phelps has slept better.

“It’s kind of weird,” he said. “Once my father and I started talking, I haven’t had a dream about snakes since.”

And even once Phelps retires from the sport, it won’t be the end of their road. The goal, after all, is to grow the sport of swimming and not just the brand of Michael Phelps — although, of course, it’s entirely possible to do both. In 2013, the two collaborated to open the Michael Phelps Skill Center, a training facility near Carlisle’s Maine office that features a number of small swimming treadmill pools endorsed by Phelps and Bowman. (The goal is to open more around the country.)

When the skill center opened, Phelps visited Carlisle in Maine for the first time. A proud New Englander through and through, the agent made sure to force Phelps to dip in the frigid Atlantic. “My whole body was numb when I got out,” Phelps said. Luckily, he got a lobster bake out of it, too.

I say this a lot, but I’m living a dream come true every day. As a kid, I wanted to do something no one had ever done, and I’m enjoying it. Finishing how I won is just something very special to me; this is why you are seeing more and more emotion on the medal podium.

The swimmer has raved about fatherhood over the years, including having daily 5 pm family dinners with his family.

‘As a kid, I always wanted to have dinner as a family, but with my parents separated, that didn’t happen often,’ Michael told People in 2021. ‘I love how we have dinner together at the same exact time every night.’

Phelps, who has been open about battling depression and anxiety, also praised his sons for talking ‘talk about their emotions.’

‘It gives me a lot of hope. I want them to be as prepared as they can be,’ he told the outlet.

During the interview, Johnson revealed that on days her spouse ‘can’t get out of bed,’ their kids ‘either try to be near him or they’ll question what he’s experiencing.’

‘We don’t hide from emotions. We teach them that daddy or mommy is having a moment, and we need to either give them space or ask if they want a hug,’ she said. ‘And that’s taught them they have permission for their feelings to be heard too.’

He stated that parenthood has taught him ‘a lot of patience’ and that he was ‘just getting started’ as a father.

‘It is difficult, but you just figure it out and make it work,’ he added. ‘That is what you do as parents. There is no manual on how to do it. You figure it out along the way.’

Just like being an Olympian.