As his life unraveled, the athlete rued that all he knew how to do was swim. “So I was just this little hole where a man should be,” he said.
The speaker, Danny Kelly, is a character in the recent novel "Barracuda," by the Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, but his lament was echoed this week by the 18-time Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who returned to competition after a six-month suspension resulting from a second drunken-driving arrest.
Phelps, 29, who spent 45 days at an alcohol rehabilitation centre in Arizona, said that in the years after the 2000 Olympics, which he qualified for as a 15-year-old, he gradually distanced himself from his mother and two sisters. He rewarded their unconditional love by ignoring their phone calls and texts and aligned himself with people interested in drafting off his celebrity.
“A lot in the past I pushed away the people who really loved and cared about me,” Phelps said. “I know I’ve hurt a lot of people. It’s been terrible.”
Phelps said he feels like a new person, but the results were the same as usual when he raced at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Skyline Aquatics Center. In his first competition since the Pan Pacific Championships last August, Phelps won the 100-meter butterfly, defeating his longtime rival Ryan Lochte. It was the first of four individual events he was scheduled to swim.
No swimmer - not even the Olympians-turned-Hollywood stars Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm - has achieved greater fame than Phelps, whose high profile saddled him with a public image of rectitude that was unsustainable. This was especially true as he navigated adolescence, a time when teenagers try on personas to see how they fit.
“My hat goes off to him,” said Lochte, a five-time Olympic medalist in 2012. He said his brush with celebrity after those London Games, including a starring role in a reality show, was instructive.
“It’s hard to get back to your normal routine of going to the pool, beating your body up,” Lochte said. “You get to sleep in, you don’t have to report to a coach, you get to meet famous people. It’s one of the hardest things to get back in shape.”
Phelps’s life since his second Olympics in 2004 has been a virtual reality show, with his every move scrutinised. Over the past six months, as part of his self-evaluation, an exercise Phelps described as brutal, he said he has learned to accept himself, hyperactivity and all.
“I’m perfectly imperfect,” Phelps said. “I’m a human being. If I have all this energy and I’m annoying, too bad. That’s who I am.”
He has returned to the water with a joy that he said he had not felt in a long time. “I smile in workouts,” Phelps said. “When I’m in training, I do feel like I’m back in high school.”
It is a telling admission. That was before swimming became his profession rather than simply his passion. It was also before Phelps and his sisters, Hilary and Whitney, drifted apart from their father, Fred, who was divorced from their mother, Debbie, when Phelps was in grade school.
Swimming started out as a sanctuary from the school bullies and his parents’ disintegrating marriage. After Phelps’s record performance of eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, it became a kind of prison, he said.
“I really only looked at myself as a swimmer,” Phelps said. “It’s sort of like for 15 years I was kind of living in a bubble. Swimming is what I did. That’s really all there was.”
So how does Phelps move forward in his life by returning to competitive swimming? He said he was coming back with a happier outlook.
“I’m looking at swimming a lot better,” he said. “The goals that I have are very lofty. I come into work with a purpose every day.”
During the years Phelps was rewriting the Olympic record books, said his longtime coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman, "There is no question he took out some frustrations in the pool."
But Bowman, whose relationship with Phelps goes back almost 20 years, cautioned: “I don’t think you can say he just made swimming everything. The behaviours that led to our current situation, it’s pretty tough to draw a direct line to swimming.”
Tsiolkas, the novelist, said he read Phelps’s autobiography as part of his research for the character of Kelly, an aspiring Olympian whose modest background, debasement by bullies and struggles in the classroom call to mind some of the challenges faced by Phelps.
“If I am honest,” Tsiolkas said by email, “I think that I had a dislike for Phelps, initially. I hated his vehement triumphalism, the egoism of his success.”
As Tsiolkas delved deeper into the world of high-achieving swimmers, interviewing Australians who became Olympians and others who narrowly missed, he had a change of heart.
“I started ‘Barracuda’ envying the athletes and ended feeling compassion and tenderness toward them,” Tsiolkas said. “They are in a complex and cruel bind. Their training tells them that they have to strive, they have to believe in being the best, in winning, but their talents only have a finite life.”
He added: “We turn these young women and men into gods. Their image is on countless products, their stories and their image circulate endlessly on social media, and when they make a mistake, we turn on them cruelly.”
Phelps retired after the 2012 Olympics before returning to competition a year ago. Of the athletes to whom Tsiolkas spoke, the ones who fared best in their post-swimming lives, he said, were those who had a solid foundation “of an ethical life, of relationships, family.”
Tsiolkas suggested that Olympic-calibre athletes would benefit from post-career mentoring. It is a topic that has been tossed around for years within USA Swimming. Customised professional career planning services have been considered, but no consensus has been reached on how to finance such a programme or how to best serve all athletes.
Perhaps by example, Phelps will provide the blueprint for others whose lives have strayed off course.
“I, of course, would like to show everybody in the world that I am in a different place and I am much better than I ever have been,” Phelps said before the Mesa meet got underway. “I understand that’s going to take a lot of time for me to be able to prove to whoever I need to prove to that I am different, that I have changed. This week will be the first week that I can start that.”
New York Times