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.