Michael Phelps supports Tokyo postponement, but also worries about athletes’ depression

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On the morning of the first Olympic postponement in history, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, made breakfast for the older two of his three sons – Boomer, who will turn four in May; and Beckett, whose second birthday was in February. (Maverick, the youngest, is six months old.) Phelps then lifted weights. Sometimes he rides his Peloton bike in simulated workouts with professional golfer friends like Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Billy Horschel. “I enjoy handing out beatdowns,” said Phelps. “On the golf course, they kill me. J.T. beats me playing lefthanded.” Often Phelps swims, but coronavirus restrictions have closed training pools in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Phelps has lived since 2015. So on this day, he lifted.

It is March of the Olympic year. Or it was an Olympic year, but not anymore. In March of each of the last five summer Olympic years, Phelps was steaming toward some variation on historic dominance, putting the final touches on a years-long training plan, the Games almost within range. “Around this time,” said Phelps, “I would be in the last stages of my prep. I’d be feeling more peppy in the water. I’d be thinking, okay, I’m done, let’s get this show on the road.” That show produced a record 28 Olympic medals and a record 23 gold, including five golds and one silver four years ago at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Phelps’s last Games, at age 31. Always, the preparation consumed his life (except, to some degree in 2012, more on that below), as it consumes every would-be Olympian’s life. “It’s four years of preparation,” he said, “And for those four years, the date of the Olympics, every race, is tattooed inside your brain.”

This year, of course, is stunningly different; the world is fighting a global pandemic. On Tuesday, host nation Japan and the International Olympic Committee, amid an increasingly vocal push from the global athletic community, announced a one-year postponement of the Games. Five times in history the Summer and Winter Olympics have been cancelled and several times diminished by boycotts. Never had they been postponed. Phelps had been expecting the action. “I was shocked that they hadn’t cancelled before this,” he said. `”I couldn’t see a way for it to all work out. We’ve had issues in the past, the air quality in Beijing (2008) and the Zika virus in Rio, but this seemed so much bigger. It didn’t seem like something that could be managed or controlled. I just didn’t see the dots getting connected.”

We were talking on the phone. I had covered chunks of Phelps’s five Olympics and many of those 28 medals, as had most of the Olympic media world. In 2015, I wrote the story of Phelps’s descent, and comeback in Sports Illustrated. I asked what this must feel like to athletes, a journey interrupted suddenly. Justly, but suddenly. “Your whole life is pointed toward this moment,” he said, “And then this huge curveball. `Nope, you’ve got to wait another year.’ If this had happened to me, I would be completely flipping out at the uncertainty. I mean, speechless. Like, is this a bad dream?”

Phelps has enduring relationships with many active swimmers. He is Babe Ruth in their sport. Eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt is among his closest friends. He talks frequently with Katie Ledecky, who won four golds in Rio and was likely to again be among the biggest stars on Team USA in Tokyo. “All of this is so hard to wrap your head around,” said Phelps. “I just feel really badly for all the athletes who have made it this far. On the one hand, I’m relieved that they’re getting another year, and rightfully so. But the waiting also makes it a lot more difficult.”

And there is this: “I really, really hope we don’t see an increase in athlete suicide rates because of this. Because the mental health component is by far the biggest thing here. This postponement is uncharted waters. We’ve never seen this before. It was the right decision, but it breaks my heart for the athletes.”

Mental health awareness is the foundation of Phelps’s post-athletic life. His passion grew from understanding and battling the depression that troubled him before it was diagnosed and led him to consider suicide in 2014, after his life cratered with a drunk driving arrest and suspension by USA Swimming. He spent 45 days in a rehabilitation facility and re-emerged with newfound health. But also with an ongoing respect for and awareness of the disease that took him down in the first place. “I’ve gone through a handful of pretty scary depressive spells since Rio,’’ said Phelps. “It’s not something that’s going to go away. But I’ve learned that my depression and anxiety don’t hold me back, they make me who I am.’’

Phelps consults and speak frequently about depression, and is a part of director Brett Rapkin’s documentary project, The Weight of Gold, which examines mental health and depression in Olympic athletes. “Trying to save a life,” says Phelps, of his work.

Now Phelps worries about swimmers – and all Olympians and aspiring Olympians – abruptly asked to re-calibrate their lives. “If this happened to me, and I was in a bad place mentally,” he said, “I would have unraveled. As someone who has gone through some really deep stages of depression, and still deals with it, I hope and pray that every one of these athletes gets help with the mental health part of this situation. This is a very big thing, and we can’t even leave our houses now. So if you’re an athlete, go online, pick up the phone, find somebody to talk to.”

Phelps said that in the current, heightened circumstance, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and USA Swimming (and by extension all the Olympic sport governing bodies) should make increased mental health counseling available to athletes sorting out future options and grappling with the suddenness of this shift. “There is no bigger time for them to act than now,” Phelps said. “If they want to help athletes, they need to do it now. Because right now is the most crucial time for athletes.”

Every athlete affected by the postponement is in a singular place, physically and mentally. I asked Phelps how a postponement might have changed his last three Olympics.

  • 2008 (Beijing, where Phelps won a record eight gold medals):  “I was totally locked and loaded,” he said, “But I had broken my wrist six months before the Trials and I was still getting better, I would love to have had another year.”
  • 2012 (London, where Phelps was undertrained, disinterested and careening toward the crash that would come two years later, still won four golds and two silvers): “If the Olympics had been moved to 2013, I would have straight punted,” said Phelps. “I would not have shown up. That was the mental state I was in. I was mailing everything in, anyway, and I couldn’t have done that for another year.”
  • 2016 (Rio, where Phelps closed out with those five golds and one silver, a triumphant finish to his career): “I would not have given up,’’ said Phelps. “No way in hell. I wanted to finish something that I hadn’t finished right. I don’t know what it would have looked like with a year off, if those games were postponed, but I would have found a way. The climb back to the top of that mountain was the best time I had I my career.”

Which leads Phelps back to the present, where dozens of athletes find themselves both relieved at escaping the uncertainty of 2020, yet quickly must re-calibrate their emotions and ambitions toward an Olympics which are, as a practical matter, presumably only 16 months away. Had this not been a historic postponement, we would be saying the Games are close at hand, not far away. The athlete in Phelps said this: “If any athlete looks inside himself or herself and decides that these Olympics are something that’s important for them to finish, there’s nothing that’s too big to overcome. There is nothing that can stop them. Just focus on things you can control and don’t get overwhelmed by the things you can’t control, because that’s what you can start to have problems.”

In the background of our interview, a child’s voice rang out. Boomer had soaked his clothes in the sprinkler. “I’ll be right out,” said Phelps, to the little boy who lounged on his mother’s – and grandmother’s – lap in Rio. There is that world where little kids play in the sun and another where athletes’ entire existence is upside down and Phelps worries for their futures. “If people are struggling, I hope they call me,” said Phelps. “My phone is always open.”

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

Katie Ledecky out-touches new rival at swimming’s U.S. Open, extends streak

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It was a rare sight: Katie Ledecky being matched stroke for stroke in a distance race in an American pool. She was up for the challenge.

Ledecky out-touched emerging 16-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh by eight hundredths of a second in the 400m freestyle at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday night.

Ledecky and McIntosh were tied at the 300-meter mark. Ledecky ended up clocking 3:59.71 to McIntosh’s 3:59.79 to extend a decade-long win streak in freestyle races of 400 meters or longer in U.S. pools.

“I know we’ll have a lot more races ahead of us,” Ledecky said on Peacock. “We bring the best out of each other.”

The U.S. Open continues Friday with live finals coverage on Peacock at 6 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

At the Tokyo Olympics, McIntosh placed fourth in the 400m free at age 14.

She accelerated this year, taking silver behind Ledecky at the world championships and silver behind Tokyo gold medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia at the Commonwealth Games.

Then in October, McIntosh outdueled Ledecky in a 400m free — also by eight hundredths — in a short-course, 25-meter pool at a FINA World Cup meet in Toronto. Long-course meets like the Olympics and the U.S. Open are held in 50-meter pools.

McIntosh also won world titles in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley, becoming the youngest individual world champion since 2011.

A potential showdown among Ledecky, Titmus and McIntosh at the 2024 Paris Games is already being compared to the “Race of the Century,” the 2004 Olympic men’s 200m free where Australian Ian Thorpe edged Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps.

In other events Thursday, Regan Smith, an Olympic and world medalist in the backstroke and butterfly, won a 200m individual medley in a personal best 2:10.40, a time that would have placed fifth at June’s world championships. She beat 16-year-old Leah Hayes, who took bronze in the event at worlds.

Olympic 400m IM champ Chase Kalisz won the men’s 200m IM in 1:56.52, his best time ever outside of major summer meets. Frenchman Léon Marchand won the world title in 1:55.22 in June, when Kalisz was fourth.

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Eliud Kipchoge, two races shy of his target, to make Boston Marathon debut

Eliud Kipchoge Berlin Marathon
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World record holder Eliud Kipchoge will race the Boston Marathon for the first time on April 17.

Kipchoge, who at September’s Berlin Marathon lowered his world record by 30 seconds to 2:01:09, has won four of the six annual major marathons — Berlin, Tokyo, London and Chicago.

The 38-year-old Kenyan has never raced Boston, the world’s oldest annual marathon dating to 1897, nor New York City but has repeated in recent years a desire to enter both of them.

Typically, he has run the London Marathon in the spring and the Berlin Marathon in the fall.

Kipchoge’s last race in the U.S. was the 2014 Chicago Marathon, his second of 10 consecutive marathon victories from 2014 through 2019.

He can become the first reigning men’s marathon world record holder to finish the Boston Marathon since South Korean Suh Yun-Bok set a world record of 2:25:39 in Boston in 1947, according to the Boston Athletic Association.

In 2024 in Paris, Kipchoge is expected to race the Olympic marathon and bid to become the first person to win three gold medals in that event.

The Boston Marathon field also includes arguably the second- and third-best men in the world right now — Kipchoge’s Kenyan training partners Evans Chebet and Benson Kipruto. Chebet won Boston and New York City this year. Kipruto won Boston last year and Chicago this year.

American Des Linden, who won Boston in 2018, headlines the women’s field.

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