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Michael Phelps’ mental health campaign more relevant than ever during 2021 Olympics

Bruno Cooke July 28, 2021
Michael Phelps’ mental health campaign more relevant than ever during 2021 Olympics

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Michael Phelps launched his Foundation using a $1 million bonus he received from Speedo for his success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a children’s mental health program followed 10 years later. How has Michael Phelps’ mental health campaign evolved and gained relevance during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and what role has his wife played in its messaging?

When did Michael Phelps’ philanthropy work begin?

After a string of high profile successes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps received a $1 million bonus from swimwear distributor Speedo. 

On 2 September, 2008, then a fourteen-time Olympic gold medalist, Phelps announced the establishment of the Michael Phelps Foundation. 

Kris Connor/Getty Images for KRAVE Jerky

He pledged the Speedo money to it, and quickly embarked on an eight-city tour of the US, to visit children and share his experience in Beijing.

The tour also served as the springboard for an education program – Dream, Plan, Reach – the aim of which was to “empower children to live healthy, active lives”.

‘im’ program follows two years later

In 2010, Phelps’ foundation, in collaboration with KidsHealth.org and the Michael Phelps Swim School, piloted the “im” program.

While its primary focus was originally on being active and healthy, on World Mental Health Day 2018 (10 October), Phelps’ “im Healthy” program expanded to incorporate mental health curricula as well. 

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Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

“Good mental health is just as important as good physical health”, Phelps said at the launch. 

“We are proud to offer our eight new lesson plans on emotional health to educators, day care providers, and parents so they can help their kids build inner strengths.”

Phelps has had his fair share of mental health struggles

He may be the most decorated Olympian of all time, but Phelps’ journey has not been all smooth sailing.

After he received his second DUI in 2014 – for driving at 84mph in a 45mph zone in Baltimore, Maryland – Phelps says he contemplated suicide

“I didn’t want to be alive,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t want to see anyone else – I didn’t want to see another day.”

Michael Phelps and his wife Nicole spoke to Carson Daly of the Today program in January of this year about the impact mood disorders have on their family.

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“I’m very vocal about making sure that the kids are aware that maybe Michael’s having a hard day,” Nicole said. “[The kids] didn’t do something that made Daddy feel this way. It’s Daddy having his own stuff.”

How he learned to cope

But talking about his struggles outside the pool – depression and anxiety, likely linked to the pressures incurred by his immense success in the pool – proved invaluable, both for himself and for others.

“Once I started talking about my struggles outside the pool, the healthier I felt,” Phelps said.

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Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“Now I have kids and adults come up to me and say they were able to open up because I was open about my life. Isolation can be crippling. When I’d see my therapist, I remember beforehand how much I hated going. Then every time after I’d walk out the door, I felt like a million bucks.”

Michael Phelps’ mental health campaign takes on new meaning during 2021 Olympics

The Michael Phelps Foundation’s mental health program has returned to the spotlight since Phelps spoke out in favour of gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Games.

“We’re human beings,” Phelps said. “Nobody is perfect. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and down and emotional rollercoasters. The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those times.”

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Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Michael Phelps’ wife Nicole sits on the advisory council for the Foundation, and supports it in its messaging.

Simone Biles, widely considered the greatest and most dominant gymnast of all time, talked about feeling the “weight of the world” on her shoulders during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She recently withdrew from the individual all-around gymnastics final, which will take place tomorrow, with teammate Jade Carey competing in her place.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.