Dubai: Forget what he did in the pool, all-time greatest Olympian Michael Phelps says his achievements post-retirement could be bigger than winning 28 medals if he continues to share his mental health experiences.
The 32-year-old US swimmer ended his career on a high last summer with five golds and a silver in Rio.
It took his tally from four Olympics to 23 gold, three silver and two bronze and ensured he came out of retirement — and depression — to be back at his happiest, but it doesn’t end there.
“Now I get to talk about things that I never really talked about,” he said on the sidelines of an Under Armour store opening in Dubai Mall on Monday.
“Throughout my career I don’t want to say I had a mask on but some of the times I wasn’t truly showing who I was, but I think over the last three years I’ve shown this is me, this is what you get.
“I can honestly say I’ve gone through depression probably half-a-dozen times, I have anxiety, I have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), these are things that make me human I guess, and I’ll get up and talk about them because it’s part of my life and I have nothing to hide.
“I’m completely comfortable to open up and talk about things when it comes to mental health and hopefully we can teach people that it’s OK not to be OK.
“Look, I wanted to kill myself and I was able to come back two years later and be the happiest guy in the world because I had the right tools around me and I was willing to change and I was willing to get better.
“For me, now there are a lot of things I can do outside of the pool that potentially could be bigger than me winning X amount of medals.
“I’ll always love to see them, hold them or talk about them, but I don’t want my career to just be about gold medals or world records, I’d like my legacy to be bigger than that.
“I’m by no means done, or going to just sit back in retirement mode, I’m still going to work, it’s something I want to do and need to do in order to stay sane.”
Whether his form at London 2012 was a cause or symptom of his depression, Phelps acknowledges it was a catalyst for change. “I had reached a point in my life where I didn’t want it anymore, I probably went through the worst four years of training in my life from 2008 to 2012.
“I’d skip weeks at a time, I’d disappear, would travel and do things that I probably shouldn’t be doing,” he said in the most candid of interviews where he also discussed growing up without a father and how becoming a father to 16-month Boomer had also changed him, his wife Nicole is now pregnant with their second.
“The 200-metre butterfly final at London haunted me for a long time but looking back at it, I got what I deserved,” he said of his defeat to Chad le Clos.
“I wanted to come back and be as good as I could, and really that was just for myself.
“I didn’t want to have that ‘what if?’ 20 years down the road. Where I’d ask: ‘Why didn’t I work harder for that two or three weeks’.
“People ask me what was going through my head in that last relay when I was sitting on the blocks, and it was just pure happiness, because I had finally finished and I had finished on my own terms.
“That’s important for an athlete, it’s the only way to go out. It’s sad to see athletes come out of retirement and fail and there was no way I was going to do that.
“If you’re going to ask me if I’m coming back, forget it, don’t even waste your question. I did what I wanted to do and I think I filled that ‘what if’. It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to have that ‘what if’ moment.”