Michael Phelps climbed out of the pool for the final time at the 2016 Olympics in Rio as the most decorated Olympian in history (23 gold medals and 28 medals overall). He makes swimming look so effortless! The world watches him in awe of his skill and strength. He makes me want to take up swimming, but I can barely get from one end of the pool to the other without having to climb out on the verge of a heart attack, and trust me…You do NOT want to see me in a Speedo.
At thirty-one-years-old, he’s retiring with a fairytale ending to his legendary career, but only a few short years ago, his life was a wreck. He was self-medicating to feel numb instead of facing the feelings of emptiness and depression that plagued him. He was considering suicide, and he believed that the world would somehow be better without him.
In a 2012 interview with ESPN, Phelps honestly and courageously admitted that he struggled to figure out his identity outside the pool. He confessed, “I was a train wreck. I was like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth. There were times where I didn’t want to be here. It was not good. I felt lost.”
After a DUI and some embarrassingly public run-ins with the law, most people thought the champion swimmer was washed up and done for good. He had become little more than a punchline for late-night comedians. A “comeback” of any kind seemed improbably (if not impossible).
Phelps finally hit rock bottom and sought help. During a stint in rehab, his longtime friend and NFL Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis, reached out with an unexpected gift. Lewis who is an outspoke Christian gave his friend a copy of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life which answers the simple-but-timeless question: What on earth am I here for?
The Bible-based teachings of the book inspired Phelps to root his identity in God’s eternal love instead of the fleeting fame and fortunes of this world. He was also inspired to reconcile with his father. They had been estranged for two decades, but their reunion started with a warm embrace (something that seemed impossible a few short years earlier).
If YOU are in need of a comeback in some area of your life or if you’re struggling to find purpose, peace or hope, I’d strongly encourage you to check out The Purpose Driven Life. It might just change your life too!
And if by some random chance Michael Phelps himself ever stumbles across this blog, let me just say, we are all so proud of you. You are the world’s best swimmer and we’re in awe of your talent, but as you’ve already discovered, that’s not the basis of your identity. Your identity (like all of our identities) is wrapped up completely in God’s limitless love for you. We’re cheering you on as you begin a new adventure outside the pool. I pray God’s continued blessings and guidance for you, your fiancee, your precious baby and all the wonderful blessings I’m certain God has in store for your family. Remember that life’s most “golden” moments don’t happen on a podium; they happen when we’re surrounded by the ones we love most. Savor those many golden moments to come. Thanks for inspiring us and for sharing part of your incredible journey with us.