Oh Michael, Michael, Michael. What are we going do with you? You're one of the most gifted athletes to grace the Olympic stage in decades (maybe ever?). And yet, you can't seem to get out of your own way.
In No Limits, written just after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it's clear that although he's achieved a lifetime's worth of success and critical acclaim, he had a lot to learn about adulting.
His biography's filled with his athletic accomplishments: the world records he's smashed, the 18 gold medals he's won, and accounts of exciting races that held America captive to their TVs.
But it's hard to ignore that although he relates his personal story of overcoming ADHD, his biggest problem was overcoming another illness: alcoholism.
His account of his career is littered with blurry times that he doesn't remember well which led to injuries that threatened to side-line him at crucial events—and which would also let down the team of people working to help him achieve all of his goals.
Later, in the fall of 2005, […] I was hanging out in Ann Arbor with a bunch of swimmers. I was not in a very good state of mind. I don't remember why. Boys will be boys, I guess.
In fact, I don't recall very much about the entire thing except that we were at this guy's house and I hit something with my right hand—maybe a post, maybe a wall. I don't even remember why I hit it. I'm not aggressive like that. It was just a weird situation. (No Limits)
If that sounds like a night with a tad bit of boozing…it was.
But Phelps didn't admit that back in 2008. However, a few years later, Michael Phelps admitted that he had a drinking problem. In an article for Sports Illustrated, Tim Layden outlines Phelps' problems with alcohol and gambling, and the help he sought from a rehab center in Arizona in order to get his life back on track and his body back in shape for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. (Source)
It's an article almost more revealing than the entirety of No Limits, mostly because it lacks the self-preserving evasions that the book is rife with. Phelps had no problem detailing the times of laps and medals won, but openly talking about a dirty secret wasn't something he was ready to do.
Phelps also seemed to struggle with a lack of focus and sense of prioritizing his sport. In Layden's article, Bob Bowman (Phelps' longtime coach) admits that before Michael went to rehab he was running out of ways to motivate his star athlete.
It had gotten so bad, he started inviting Phelps' friends to Friday morning practices in order to entice him to even show up. Phelps says of that time before the London Games:
"After '08, mentally, I was over. I didn't want to do it anymore. But I also knew I couldn't stop. So I forced myself to do something that I really didn't want to do, which was continue swimming. That whole four-year period, I would miss at least two workouts a week. Why? Didn't want to go. Didn't feel like going. Screw it. I'm going to sleep in. I'm going to skip Friday and go for a long weekend." (Source)
That just doesn't sound like Olympic material, does it? But he still won four gold and two silver medals in 2012. That's how freakishly good he is.
Regardless of his low moments, Phelps is one seriously gifted athlete. He's made more records than the Rolling Stones…imagine what would happen if he committed himself 100%.
In No Limits, though, Phelps isn't there yet. He's still young, overindulged, and fighting against the pull of celebrity and fame.
The fact that he has an eye-opening experience getting his own place at the age of nineteen reveals a lot about how sheltered he really was:
And I was left to figure out how to live this new life in Ann Arbor. At first, I had no dishes. Having gone to the grocery store for milk and cereal, I did have something to eat. What to eat it in? A Gatorade container would have to do. I poured the cereal in there, sloshed the milk in on top, swirled it all around and drank it all down.
Soon enough, I had dishes. I put them in the dishwasher, then poured liquid hand soap in the soap tray. That led to a bubble bath all over the kitchen floor.
As time went along, I did become more accomplished in the house, sort of. At one point, the smoke detector started singing. I hadn't been cooking. I didn't smell anything burning. What could it be?
I called Bob [his coach]. "Michael," he said, "when was the last time you changed the batteries in the smoke detector?"
"You need to do that?" (No Limits)
He's like the stereotypical bumbling husband in laundry detergent commercials. It's actually kind of endearing.
Going into the 2016 Summer Games held in Rio, Phelps seems to be a different dude. His interviews reveal a man who has done some serious self-reflection and attitude adjusting. He's sober. He's in incredible physical shape. He's engaged to be married, and he's a new father.
And he's probably going to continue to crush it.