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.
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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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“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.
“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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“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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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.