While making the move to Arizona last fall, Michael Phelps laid out his medals — all 22 of them — and stared. For the first time in his career, the swimmer appeared as amazed at his accomplishments as the rest of the world.
“I was able to look back at my career and be really excited, be proud of what I did,” Phelps said, “because I had never had the chance to do that before. That was something that was just really neat to me.”
It took getting arrested a second time, going to rehab, getting engaged, becoming a father-to-be, moving to Arizona and committing to training and one last Olympics for Phelps to find his happy place. But he seems to have found it after detoxing his life in every way.
“The process that I went through is difficult and challenging,” said Phelps, who followed his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, from Baltimore to Arizona State. “I’ve gotten the question a couple of times, if I could change anything in my life, would I? I wouldn’t. Everything happens for a reason. I’m thankful that I’m sitting here alive today and able to grow from the experiences that I’ve had.”
I’ve gotten the question a couple of times, if I could change anything in my life, would I? I wouldn’t.
Phelps’ mission to rehabilitate his life, his career and his image continued late Tuesday night at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. His latest therapy session with the media lasted 34 minutes as the greatest Olympian of all time peeled back the layers of his life, hoping to “show the world who I am.”
We learned: Phelps has reestablished a relationship with his father; he answers phone calls from friends and family instead of “dodging” them; he hasn’t had a drink in almost 18 months, adhering to the terms of his probation; he only halfheartedly trained for the 2012 Olympics; and this definitely, positively, absolutely is his last Olympics.
“Just living a sort of freer, happier life now,” Phelps said. “I think it’s something that’s a huge change. I don’t feel like I’m carrying weights around anymore. I feel like whatever I’ve been holding inside of me, I’ve been able to get it out and start fresh. That’s a pretty incredible feeling. I look in the mirror I’m still the same person, but I think how I approach things a little bit differently. I guess [fiancée] Nicole [Johnson] would say it would be night and day. I’ve heard her say that before. I don’t know. The biggest change I’m a lot more laid-back. I’m a lot more open.”
A machine in the water, he’s proved human away from the pool.
Phelps was arrested in September 2014 for a second DUI after driving 39 mph over the speed limit. Within a week, he had checked into The Meadows residential treatment facility in Wickenburg, Ariz., where he spent 45 days coming clean.
“It’s pretty crazy how big of a change I see from not having a drink in it’s coming up on a year and a half, just because I see a complete change in my body,” said Phelps, who turns 31 this summer. “I see a complete change in how I am day to day. Completely clear head. I don’t have a headache, which is pretty awesome. That’s pretty amazing. It’s all the small things that really add up. For so long, without having one, I’m actually happy every day. I’m actually able to be productive every day. I think that’s something I am very proud of. I think when I do retire, I’ll be able to look back and say that was something that really helped.”
Phelps, who eagerly awaits the birth of his son in May, seemingly has found peace. He also has regained his love of swimming.
Training for the 2012 Games became “like pulling teeth,” Phelps said. Now, he’s in the best shape of his life, working hard in the pool and the weight room, recovering afterward, eating the right food, going to bed early.
Phelps posted his fastest times in years in the 200-meter butterfly, 100 fly and 200 IM while swimming at the U.S. national championships in San Antonio last summer after being suspended from the world championship team by USA Swimming.
As his new Under Armour commercial states: It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.
Phelps’ offer to answer “any question” and “be an open book” ends when asked what events he will swim this summer. But he could compete in six, including three relays.
He will add to his medal collection at his going-away party, but Phelps insists he’s OK with whatever the outcome.
“I think when this summer’s over, as long as I’m able to look back and say I did everything I could to get ready, it doesn’t matter what happened,” Phelps said. “If I don’t win a single medal, and I do everything I can to prepare myself for those whatever it is the Olympics or Trials, that’s all. That’s all, because that’s all I could have done. I know that everyday I’m in the pool now, I am working. I’m doing everything little, tiny thing I can do to make sure I’m as prepared as I can be. If I go to Rio and don’t final, yeah, I’m probably going to be a little [ticked], but that’s what I have. And I think at that point, I think I would be able to accept it.”
He’s lying, but Phelps will never have to admit it, because once again, the pool is his oyster.