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Michael Phelps: A golden shoulder to lean on

The legendary American and Grant Hackett share much more than swimming greatness

Silver medal winner Grant Hackett of Australia hugs gold medal winner Michael Phelps after the 200 metre Freestyle final during the XI FINA World Championships in 2005 in Montreal, Canada. Photograph: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Nearly a week into their most recent therapeutic reunion, Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett, two giants of Olympic swimming, sat down to breakfast at a packed restaurant and wondered how they would explain themselves to their children some day.

The conversations they foresaw had nothing to do with Phelps’ record-shattering medal haul or with Hackett’s defiance of debilitating illnesses during a decade-long dominance of the 1,500-metre freestyle, the most gruelling event in the pool, that earned him the nickname Captain Courageous from his fellow Australians.

They were reliving dark moments, times when they posed a danger to themselves and others. Phelps, 32, imagined the day when his toddler son, Boomer, would refer to one of those low points: “You were going 86 miles an hour in a 45-mile zone. Why can’t I?”

Hackett, 37, laughed ruefully and told Phelps he had already spoken with a child psychologist about how to guide his eight-year-old twins through the shambles of his post-swimming life.

“There will be conversations that need to be had and a certain strength you’ll have to find,” said Hackett.

Such exchanges are the reason Hackett travelled 8,000 miles from Australia to Arizona last month to stay with Phelps and his wife, Nicole. It was not his first visit. He has used their home as something of a halfway house, joking that he spends so much time with them that he is getting mail there.

His life in Australia, where distance swimmers can become celebrities on a par with NFL quarterbacks in the United States, started careening out of control several years ago. In February, it derailed in a very public fashion. He visited his parents’ Gold Coast home, and his father, Neville, called the police to report that Hackett had been drinking and had suffered a mental breakdown that sent him into a rage. The Olympian was taken to a detention centre in handcuffs – a scene that was broadcast across Australia and set off a social media frenzy.

He was released without being charged, but his family was unable to find him the next morning. Alarmed, Neville Hackett stepped before television cameras, described his son as a missing person in urgent need of help and implored him to come home.

“Grant, let us know where you are,” he said. “We love you, and we want to help you.”

Text message

Phelps followed the drama from Paris, where he and Nicole spent Valentine’s Day. He learned about what was happening in Australia through a text message from Allison Schmitt, another Olympic swimmer.

Phelps, who considers Hackett one of his dearest friends, sent a flurry of texts to him and then paced in his hotel room while he waited to hear back. Nicole Phelps recalled her husband saying several times, with increasing urgency, “We have to convince him to come home with us.”

Hackett soon contacted his family, saying he was safe and simply hiding from the humiliation.

Phelps could empathise with Hackett in a way few others could. Along with his 28 Olympic medals, Phelps accrued two arrests for driving under the influence – the second one after the police stopped him for going almost twice the speed limit on a road in Baltimore, his hometown. He had also been photographed holding a bong at a private party, an image that ended up in a British tabloid.

After the second DUI arrest, in 2014, Phelps spent eight weeks at the Meadows, an Arizona treatment centre, to deal with the anxiety and depression that he had tried to overcome on his own after the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Recognising how difficult it is for many people to recognise their vulnerabilities and reach out for help, Phelps has devoted himself to unravelling the stigma of mental illness.

Grant Hackett: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Tiger Woods or Joe Blow down the street We’re all just people trying to work through stuff.” Photograph: Caitlin O’Hara/The New York Times

“I want to be able to get out in public and talk and say, ‘Yes, I’ve done these great things in the pool, but I’m also a human,’” Phelps said, sweeping his gaze across the restaurant. “I’m going through the same struggles as a lot of the people in this room.”

Phelps has started some public speaking on the topic and has become an informal counsellor to the stars, lending an ear to golfer Tiger Woods after his arrest in May on charges of driving under the influence. A toxicology report revealed no alcohol in Woods’ system, but rather a mix of four prescription drugs and the active ingredient in marijuana.

“I feel like that’s a massive scream for help,” Phelps said.

Over the summer, Phelps said, he met an 11-year-old boy in California who had appeared in a documentary about anxiety. The boy was a swimmer, and he said he had wrestled with suicidal thoughts the year before. Phelps told the boy about the days he spent curled up in bed, “literally wanting to die,” after his second DUI arrest.

At the end of the conversation, Phelps said, the boy told him, “I have more in common with Michael Phelps than I ever thought.”

Hackett, a rapt listener, said, “That’s awesome.”

A microscope

From 1997 to 2007, despite a collapsed lung and a bout of mononucleosis, Hackett was unbeaten in the 1,500 freestyle and also set world records in the 200 and 800 freestyles. He won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 and missed a third one in the event by just over one second.

After he retired from the sport, Hackett’s life resembled his freestyle stroke: He appeared to be effortlessly gliding to glory, but beneath the surface propelling himself forward was becoming almost too much to bear.

He was married to entertainer Candice Alley, and their twins – a daughter, Charlize, and a son, Jagger – arrived the year after Hackett stopped swimming. He became a successful entrepreneur and hedge-fund investor, earned a master’s degree and did broadcasting work on the side. At the same time, he said, he was using alcohol and sleeping pills to quell anxiety and depression.

“It’s hard when you’ve done something that many people see as extraordinary, but as a person you’re not,” Hackett said. “It’s almost like you’re separated from the pack. You’re having to try to grow as a person and work out who you are in this really difficult set of circumstances, under a microscope.”

By 2014, his marriage had disintegrated and his substance use was leading to headline-generating behaviour, including wandering dazed and barely dressed through a Melbourne hotel lobby. His family pleaded with him to seek professional help, and Hackett spent a month at the Meadows, the same treatment facility Phelps entered later that year.

But Hackett was not ready then to open up and acknowledge his weaknesses. He was trying to conquer his anxiety and depression as if they were swimming rivals.

“You want to push through and almost win in a way,” Hackett said. “When that’s how you think, it’s hard to step back and say: ‘Wait, this isn’t about sports or winning and losing. It’s about my life.’”

After the February episode, Hackett knew he needed more help. The day after he resurfaced, he contacted Phelps and agreed to fly to the United States. He also decided that after stopping in Arizona he would enter a recovery centre in Malibu, California. Phelps drove him the 400 miles to the facility.

Grant Hackett, left, and Michael Phelps playing golf at the Scottsdale National Golf Club in Arizona. The two men are close friends, brought together not just by their sport, but also their similar struggles dealing with fame and personal demons. Photograph: Caitlin O’Hara/The New York Times)

Twice since his month-long treatment, Hackett has travelled to spend time at the Phelps’ home.

“Michael’s been there and he understands, so it’s almost like you can plug right into that support,” Hackett said.

He and Phelps first crossed paths at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Phelps, then 15, marvelled at how big swimming was in Australia and how much attention was paid to Hackett’s success. As Phelps’ own fame grew, he gravitated toward Australian swimmers, who could understand the scrutiny he faced better than most of his US team-mates. He and Hackett found that personal relationships, even the simplest ones, could become a minefield for anyone with a measure of fame. It has been years since either of them has had a chance to make a first impression, because people assume they already know celebrities.

Passive participants

“I don’t think you change,” Hackett said, “I think the world around you changes more than anything else.”

As Hackett and Phelps acquired agents and sponsors who burnished their public images, they became almost passive participants in their development.

“You have people telling you what to do, what to say, how to act, where to go – giving you constant advice,” Hackett said. “It’s almost like you don’t have to think for yourself. You lose a sense of your own identity in all that.”

Hackett also felt a piece of himself slip away when his marriage ended and the child custody hearings began.

“You go through a situation where you see your kids pretty much every day, the household is busy, it’s chaotic, and that’s what you’re used to and you love it,” Hackett said. “Then, all of the sudden, I remember moving into this really nice place and sitting on the couch at night and going, ‘This stinks’. You feel like you have everything, but you have nothing.”

Phelps, who had been listening intently, let out a deep sigh. He said he could not imagine being a part-time father to Boomer, now 16 months old, and the child that he and Nicole are expecting early next year.

“I’ve been thinking what you’ve gone through, what Tiger’s gone through, being divorced and not having the freedom to see your children whenever you want,” Phelps said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Woods, 41, who has been sidelined from golf by a back injury, recently spent time in a clinic, receiving inpatient treatment to help him manage pain medications. Phelps contacted Woods through a mutual friend, Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay III, who was Woods’ team-mate at Stanford. A recovering alcoholic, Begay had reached out to Phelps around the time he sought help at the Meadows. Their first phone conversation lasted two hours.

Begay said Phelps was almost uniquely qualified to support Woods.

“Michael can provide honest and direct feedback, and that’s what athletes of their calibre need the most,” Begay said. “Athletes at their level of accomplishment, they have 100 people lined up around the corner trying to sell something to them or do something for them, and it’s hard to filter out, to decide, who is looking out for their best interests.”

Describing their conversations as “on and off,” Phelps said he took cues from Woods on how much they would discuss.

“It’s better now,” Phelps said, “because I feel like there’s more of a comfort level.”

The fishbowl

And while Phelps keeps an eye on others, his wife is helping him find alternative forms of counselling that might accommodate his frequent travels. Together, Nicole Phelps said, they have discovered groups that offer therapy by video links and even by text or email.

“It’s more affordable and accessible for more people,” she wrote in a text message. “I honestly have personally been encouraging friends and family to utilize the services because of the ease and cost.”

Phelps had just finished telling Hackett the story about the boy in California when a diner asked Phelps to record a birthday greeting for her son. After he obliged, she turned her smartphone toward Hackett, who said, “Happy birthday, and g’day from Australia”.

This sort of attention is what Hackett came here to avoid.

“I just feel different – more balanced – when I get out of the fishbowl in Australia,” he said.

There are few places where Phelps and Hackett feel more at ease than at Scottsdale National, a golf course contoured from the McDowell Mountains that offers sweeping views of Phoenix and a wellspring of tranquillity. One morning when they played last month, Phelps and Hackett had the course to themselves, and the only noise competing with the birdsong was the country and hip-hop music emanating from their cart.

Phelps carded an 84, lowering his handicap to single digits. Hackett, who does not play much golf at home, shot 103. A few days earlier, he broke 100 for the first time. Another refuge is the water. On a recent morning, they swam for an hour in an Arizona State pool. Hackett and Phelps regularly raced in front of standing-room-only crowds. On this day, their audience consisted of a lifeguard. Once they swam for medals and records, for a place in history. In retirement they swim to free their minds, to commune with the water. What used to be a high-stress profession has morphed into a peaceful interlude.

Still, old habits die hard. At the end of a 2,000-yard workout, Phelps called for a timed sprint from a dive. “We didn’t come here to screw around,” he said. Hackett muttered, “I kind of did”.

The pool may be his sanctuary, but it also remains his stage. Hackett, who swims about once a week in Australia, climbed onto a starting block and sprinted 50 yards of freestyle, finishing ahead of Phelps, who swam butterfly.

Sometimes at night, Hackett and Phelps will start talking about mental health – their own and others’ – and the conversation will still be going strong at 1am or 2am in the morning. The more they give voice to their vulnerabilities, the easier it is to imagine one day explaining their worst moments to their children.

Yes, they messed up, but nobody is perfect.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re Tiger Woods or Joe Blow down the street,” Hackett said. “We’re all just people trying to work through stuff.”