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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.

Coco Gauff upsets 9th seed to start French Open

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Coco Gauff notched yet another impressive Grand Slam match win, taking out ninth seed Jo Konta in her French Open main draw debut on Sunday.

Gauff, a 16-year-old American, upset the Brit Konta, a 2019 French Open semifinalist, 6-3, 6-3 on the first day of play at Roland Garros despite 12 double faults. Konta had 41 unforced errors to 22 winners.

“Every match is a great win,” said Gauff, the youngest player in either singles draw. “I don’t really take anything for granted because I’m just happy to be playing. I don’t think maybe winning Slams, matches at Slams is something I’m used to. Especially, this is my first main draw Roland Garros. When I’m on the court. I can act like I’m used to it. When I’m off the court, I’m just happy to be here.”

The clay-court Slam was postponed from May due to the coronavirus pandemic, is being held with damp temperatures in the 50s and has limited spectators to 1,000 per day.

“I’m pretty sure this is my first ever pro tournament, maybe even tournament in general, playing in weather like this,” said Gauff, noting she warmed up for 20 minutes before going on court so she could walk in with a sweat.

Gauff, the 2018 French Open junior champion, gets Italian qualifier Martina Trevisan in the second round after playing a match in leggings for the first time in about six years.

She’s coming off an impressive last year-plus, reaching the fourth round at the most recent Wimbledon and Australian Open. In between, she became the youngest WTA tournament champion since 2004. She recorded wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka.

Gauff will bid over the next nine months to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team outright by being among the top four Americans in WTA rankings after the 2021 French Open. Therefore, her result at this French Open will not count toward Olympic qualifying.

She is currently ranked 51st overall and eighth among Americans.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Sunday, Williams finished her 2020 with a third first-round loss in as many Grand Slam tournaments — 6-4, 6-4 to Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

With the WTA’s autumn Asian swing canceled, Williams said she won’t play before next season starts in Australia.

Williams, 40 years old and ranked 76th, will need a scintillating start to 2021 to make the U.S. Olympic team in singles. She is currently the 14th-highest-ranked American. If she doesn’t make it in singles, Williams (or Gauff) could be chosen as a doubles-only player for the Tokyo Games.

Top seed Simona Halep took the last 10 games of her 6-4, 6-0 win over Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo. Halep, who is on a 15-match win streak dating to February, could play Gauff in the quarterfinals.

On the men’s side, Stan Wawrinka swept Andy Murray 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in a battle of three-time major champions and a rematch of their life-changing 2017 semifinal in Paris.

“I need to have a long, hard think about it,” Murray said. “I don’t feel like the conditions are an excuse for it.”

It marked Murray’s first match on clay since that semi, won by Wawrinka in five sets. After that match three years ago, Wawrinka underwent two knee surgeries and Murray had two hip surgeries. Neither has made a Grand Slam semifinal since, and Murray nearly retired due to hip problems.

U.S. men went 3-0 on Sunday after winning one match total at the 2019 French Open.

The most notable victor: Sebastian Korda, the 20-year-old son of Czech 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda and brother of Nelly Korda, the world’s second-ranked female golfer.

Korda beat Italian veteran Andreas Seppi 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to become the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since 18-year-old Andy Roddick defeated Michael Chang in 2001.

Korda, after his first tour-level win, gets John Isner in the second round.

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, each trying to tie Grand Slam singles titles records, play first-round matches on Monday.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Julian Alaphilippe wins world road race title with late attack

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Julian Alaphilippe became the first Frenchman to win a road cycling world title in 23 years, attacking late and holding on to prevail by 24 seconds in Imola, Italy, on Sunday.

Alaphilippe, who wore the Tour de France yellow jersey for 16 stages between the last two years, went clear from a star-filled group at the top of the last climb with about eight miles left of a 160-mile day.

“It was a dream of my career, you know,” said Alaphilippe, whose best previous worlds finish was eighth. “I came here with, for sure, a lot of ambition. It’s just a dream day for me.”

Belgian Wout van Aert took silver, followed by Swiss Marc Hirschi in a five-man bunch sprint for the last two medals. Van Aert also earned silver in the time trial on Friday.

Slovenian Primoz Roglic, who was second in the Tour de France, finished sixth in the same time as the silver and bronze medalists after more than six and a half hours of racing.

The top American was Sepp Kuss in 52nd place, 12:35 behind.

Full results are here.

The last Frenchmen to win world titles were Laurent Brochard (road race) and Laurent Jalabert (time trial) in 1997.

Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, who won the Tour de France last Sunday, attacked with 26 miles left. He led by as much as 25 seconds before being reeled back in with about 13 miles to go.

The cycling season continues with the last two Grand Tours, each starting later than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Giro d’Italia begins Oct. 3, and the Vuelta a Espana starts Oct. 20, before the Giro finishes.

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MORE: A more equal future for women’s cycling? Lizzie Deignan has high hopes