The story most often regaled of the 2016 version of Phelps is his successful comeback to the sport of swimming. By most accounts, four years ago, he pretty much mailed in his performance in London. His training was subpar and inconsistent. His head wasn’t in the right place.
He was in his mid-twenties. He had been arrested for a DUI at age 19. He had been photographed with a bong. Probably not the first time he had seen a bong. Although he was popular, accomplished, and an incredible athlete, he wasn’t the All-American good boy the sponsors and fans had fallen in love with. I’m not sure he knew who he was either, other than being a swimmer.
After scoring an incredible eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, he followed up with four golds and two silvers in 2012. In his first race in the 2012 London games, the 400-meter individual medley, he actually failed to medal in an Olympic event for the first time since he was a 15-year old kid, swimming the 200-meter butterfly in Sydney.
By the London Olympiad’s end in the summer of 2012, he was well-decorated, but it’s not unfair to say he didn’t live up to his potential. It may be more fair to say he didn’t match the expectations the world had placed upon him.
He followed up that performance by coming out of retirement two years later, training with a newfound vigor, and earning five golds and a silver in the 2016 Rio Games, solidifying his position as the Olympian with the most medals in history.
The Rest of The Story
The comeback story is impressive. His talent and resolve are remarkable. But to me, the victories and medals aren’t the story. It’s where he was two years ago, and how he ended up there.
Retired from swimming and feeling burnout after the London games, Phelps was in a rut, struggling to find purpose without a pool.
Self-medicating with alcohol led to a drunken driving arrest after a stop for speeding down the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Maryland with a 0.14% blood alcohol level in September, 2014.
He continued to drink after being released. He was not a happy man. As he told ESPN the Magazine,
“I didn’t give a s—,” Phelps says. “I had no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.”
He had money.
He had fame.
He had won more Olympic medals than anyone, ever.
He had no will to live.
There are many lessons to be learned here.
- Money won’t solve your problems.
- Neither will fame.
- Achievements are in the past. Purpose is looking forward.
- Depression is real and can take down a king.
- Alcohol is not the solution (despite what Homer says).
Never assume that once you have X amount of money, your happiness cup will bubbleth over. Most of us Financial Independence oriented people have a numeric goal in mind. For some, it’s 10 factorial ($3.6288 million). For others, something less than a million will suffice. I’m shooting for at least 40x annual expenses.
Phelps had way, way more money than any of us are aiming for. He was beyond financially independent by any measure. I haven’t been inside his mind, but based on what I’ve read, it appears he was lacking purpose.
Always have a purpose. What good is money and time if it serves no purpose in your life? What are you but perhaps a hedonist if you serve no purpose in life?
Success and achievement don’t guarantee happiness. Having a goal, and taking steps to achieve your goal, may be as satisfying if not more so than realizing the actual goal.
If Phelps can hit rock bottom when he should be on top of the world, so can anyone. At the time of his darkest days, he had already won 18 gold medals. Which is 18 more than me, and I would guess 18 more than the entire readership of this blog.*
When the binge was over, Phelps checked in to The Meadows, a treatment center in Arizona, for a 45-day stay. He has been sober since, and credits his inpatient stay, along with Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life with saving him from himself.
I’m not going to take this in a direction to suggest you should be born again as an Evangelical Christian. I’m certainly happy it worked for Phelps, but this site is not about religion.
I’m also not going to turn this into a diatribe against alcohol**. Although I certainly would agree that a couple DUI arrests and suicidal thinking are more than enough reasons to avoid the sauce for the rest of your life.
The take-home message is that there are no guarantees.
Being the best won’t make you a winner.
Achieving the loftiest goals may not leave you satisfied.
Money is a focus of this site and most personal finance blogs, but money alone is just one piece of the financial freedom puzzle.
If you need help, ask.
If you’re not happy with your life, change your life.
I came across this inspirational camper van on my recent travels. Most days, I find some tidbit of information that reaffirms my desire for a more adventurous life and an early retirement. Rarely does it spell it out in bold capital letters all over. This van speaks my language.
For more Olympic coverage from me, check out Olympic Medalists and the Taxman. Make ’em Pay?