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Michael Phelps: “Therapy Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Drowning under the Weight of 23 Olympic Gold Medals”

You probably all know me as Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who happens to be the most prolific champion in Olympic history.


But what you might not know is that for years, ever since I came back from Rio, a single fear had taken over all aspects of my life. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a severe, crippling anxiety like my own will recognize the symptoms, right off the bat:


  • Every morning, waking up and kissing your astoundingly beautiful supermodel wife, Nicole Johnson, who won Miss California USA and later competed in the Miss USA pageant, which she, despite widely being considered a favorite to take the title at the time, unfortunately would not win in the end. 
  • Making love to her under a canopy of Sports Illustrated covers you were featured on (which are a lot), that you had painted over your bedroom roof, for as many hours as you’d like. 
  • Then, finally rolling out of bed and having breakfast with her and your three remarkable, intelligent boys, Boomer, Beckett, and Maverick, whose names you decided on because they would immediately tell everyone else in the world that your children were better than theirs, especially Maverick, who is your favorite. (If there were a gold medalist title for children, you would have given it to Maverick long ago.)
  • But then coming to terms with the fact that, throughout all of this, you won’t be able to enjoy it, all these moments, all the simple things in life, the joys that are part of the universal human experience, because your mind is too focused on one thing. No matter how hard you try to change it, you won’t be able to stop yourself: you’ll always be worried that the 23 Olympic gold medals you wear every waking second of your life, as a reminder of how far you’ve come ahead of everyone else, might cause you to drown the next time you go for a swim.
  • That every beating second of your life will be spent in the deep, painstaking fear that the 23 Olympic gold medals you won for being the greatest athlete in human history and know you’ll never part from might play an incidental role in your death. Something you, like Achilles or any other tragic hero, are reminded of every time you gaze above at your soft brown eyes and rugged jawline in a bathroom mirror.


And that’s why I’ve teamed up for an ad campaign with TalkSpace, an online program that puts people in touch with therapists, so that everyone who sees themselves in every part of my story knows they have a place to go. I want the people of the world to know that they’re not alone. There are others out there, who are just like me and you.


Every time you go to pull an all-nighter at Harper Memorial Library or the Reg, I want you to see my face and know that you’re not alone, that “therapy changed me.” Because it really did. My good friend Dean Boyer and I want to make sure you have the best coverage that’s possible—coverage of me, that is. Because, as they say, there’s really nothing that matters more when it comes to campus mental health than having pictures of me, Olympic champion Michael Phelps, up for students to see and take comfort in—knowing I have access to and use therapy, and that it was really good for me.

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