THE BLOG
06/29/2016 04:16 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2017

Michael Phelps's Most Powerful Achievement

It didn't seem unusual to see a multipage article about Michael Phelps in the sports section of The New York Times last weekend. After all, Michael Phelps is competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha this week in the hope of securing a spot on his fifth consecutive Olympic team. What made this particular story so very unusual was that it wasn't about his training program; it wasn't about the likelihood that he will add to his impressive medal collection of 18 gold, two silver and two bronze; and it wasn't about the enormous amount of food he consumes prior to competitions. This article was about Michael Phelps's journey to heal himself. It was about the work he is doing to come to terms with the emotional pain that led him -- over the last eight years -- to engage in some very self-destructive and dangerous behavior.

Some people may have trouble understanding how an accomplished world-class athlete could be bothered by what might seem to be ordinary issues or conflicts. And perhaps even more confusing to the typical sports fan, how did these issues lead to a serious problem with substance abuse and two DUIs -- the second of which occurred after he was clocked driving 84mph in a 45mph zone and then determined to have a blood alcohol level of 0.14, or 0.06 in excess of the state driving limit. Fortunately for Michael Phelps -- and the other drivers on the road that September night in 2014 -- he was arrested before doing any permanent physical harm to himself or anyone else.

Prior to the 2014 arrest, it may have seemed that the most celebrated swimmer of all time had everything he wanted: success, fame, endorsements and money. Yes, there was that DUI when he was 19 and that photograph of him smoking pot at a party in 2009, but weren't those just the expected transgressions of youth? How could someone who was adored by fans everywhere feel so alone, so isolated, and so depressed? According to the Times article, Michael Phelps was in such distress after the 2014 arrest that he sent a text to his agent stating he didn't "want to be alive anymore." Some who read the article may dismiss Michael Phelps as "spoiled" or self-indulgent. Perhaps they will see him as yet another pampered celebrity who took his amazing talent and good fortune for granted.

But it appears that neither Michael Phelps, nor anyone around him, recognized the signs of his emotional pain for what they were. Or if they did recognize the signs as reason for concern, they may have done what people often do: deny, dismiss, or diminish their importance. Or perhaps those around him hoped the signs they saw would somehow resolve on their own. And yet it seems frighteningly clear that had he not been arrested for recklessly driving while intoxicated nearly two years ago, he might have died that night, or on another night, either in a crash or by some other means.

Michael Phelps was a physically gifted boy with a coach who recognized his talent and potential to become a champion. But becoming a champion requires a tremendous amount of time, focus and dedication. It also requires sacrifice. In this case the sacrifices made may have meant that Michael Phelps missed out on some of the important experiences that shape and prepare young lives for adult decisions and responsibilities.

Michael Phelps also experienced emotional pain during his early years. Many kids do. Exactly how the sadness, confusion, anger and loss associated with his parents' divorce interacted with the unusual course of his development as he became the superstar, we will likely never know. And we will never know how genetic predispositions or underlying conditions that may have affected his ability to process or regulate his moods interacted with either of these factors.

Regardless of how life experiences, genetic predispositions, and random events mixed together to create the emotional pain that lead Michael Phelps to drink too much and drive too fast, we know that the result was nearly catastrophic -- and most likely avoidable. And isn't it ironic that had he suffered from a physical injury or condition that in any way threatened his ability to compete, an entire team of world class experts would have been at his disposal to address his physical pain.

We shouldn't prevent kids from pursuing their goals and chasing their dreams, but we do need to ensure that we don't sacrifice the child along the way. In addition, we can't prevent emotional pain; it is part of the human experience. Sometimes emotional pain is a sign of an acute condition, sometimes it is a sign of a chronic concern. But it is a sign that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. We can and we should encourage everyone to pay attention to their emotional well-being just as they do their physical well-being. We can teach kids how to recognize what they are experiencing emotionally, and we should teach them how to talk about these experiences with people they trust.

Most important, we can and we must educate everyone to recognize the five key signs of emotional suffering: change in personality, agitation, withdrawal, lack of personal care, and hopelessness (visit Change Direction for more information). We all know the signs of a heart attack , and many of us know the signs of a stroke. Aren't the five signs of emotional suffering just as likely to save someone's life? Isn't it likely that Michael Phelps would have experienced less pain and distress if he had been able to recognize the signs -- and, moreover, had been comfortable enough to reach out for help?

My two daughters began swimming when they were very little girls. My oldest was seven when she joined our summer swim team. Her little sister began competing at an even younger age. Both girls loved the sport and their swim friends, and I loved the community that came together to support and encourage our kids.

Like so many other swim families, we were huge Michael Phelps fans. We followed his career, huddled around the television during each Olympics, and marveled at one unbelievable performance after another. Knowing what I know now about the challenges he faced, the mistakes he suffered, and the progress he has made doesn't make me think less of him or diminish any of his accomplishments. It actually makes me respect and admire him more. We all have struggles and we all experience emotional pain. While most of us experience these challenges privately, some choose to tell their stories publicly. It takes courage to do so, and it provides a powerful example for others to follow.

While Michael Phelps's story will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to coaches and parents about the danger of depriving young athletes of a healthy and balanced childhood in the hopes of creating the next Olympic champion, it is far more than that. His story should be an important opportunity for all of us because it is, in fact, a story about so many of us.

Most of us are uncomfortable acknowledging our emotional pain -- even to ourselves. We seem to believe that we should be able to "push through" our mental health challenges -- something we would never try to do if we had a broken leg, diabetes, or cancer. Many of us are reluctant to share with friends or loved ones that we are having a difficult time, that we are depressed, anxious, drinking too much, that we need help. But given that one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental health condition, perhaps it is time to change that.

Michael Phelps is a fortunate man, and it appears that he is taking full advantage of the opportunity he now has to build a healthier life for himself, his fiancée, and their new baby boy. While the world will again be watching his every move as he competes in Rio for glory and additional hardware, he has already achieved a new kind of greatness. By telling his story, by opening up and being honest about his struggles and his vulnerabilities, he is helping to change our culture, so that future athletes and superstars -- and everyday kids who look up to them -- will more easily recognize their own emotional pain and will more likely ask for the help they deserve.