TOKYO — Michael Phelps is uniquely qualified when it comes to being a face of the Olympics and the effect that can have psychologically on an athlete.
The four-time Olympian battled anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts throughout his Olympic swimming career. He eventually overcame his mental health struggle by seeking out professional help.
The 28-time Olympic medalist has since been a huge advocate for mental health. In 2010, he launched the Michael Phelps Foundation, which teaches kids to be healthy and active. He’s also on the board of Medibio, a company focused on the diagnosis of mental health disorder.
When Phelps found out four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles withdrew from Tuesday’s gymnastics team competition in Tokyo, citing mental health, it touched the former swimmer’s heart.
“It broke my heart. But also, if you look at it, mental health over the last 18 months, is something that people are talking about,” Phelps said to NBC’s Mike Tirico.
Similar to Phelps in previous Olympics, Biles entered Tokyo with enormous expectations. She is one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics and is the undisputed leader of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. Her withdrawal from the team competition sent shockwaves around the world.
Competing without Biles, the U.S. women’s team went on to place second in the team final. The Russian Olympic Committee won gold and the British team finished third.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard,” Biles posted on Instagram following the gymnastics team competition. “The Olympics is no joke!”
Phelps explained why he can relate to Biles’ sentiments. The pressure to be a gold medalist was an immense burden for him, too.
“The Olympics is overwhelming. There are a lot of emotions that go into it. I can talk about this for an hour. The easiest way for me to say it is I think athletes, and Olympic athletes in general, we need someone who we can trust. Somebody who can let us be ourselves, listen and allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody who is not gonna come try to fix us,” Phelps said. “We carry a lot of things and a lot of weight on our shoulders. It’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all the expectations that are being thrown on top of us.
“We’re human beings, nobody is perfect. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters … I felt like I was carrying, as Simone (Biles) said, the weight of the world on my shoulders. It’s a tough situation.”
Phelps said he hopes all the attention surrounding Biles’ exit from the team competition can serve as a teachable moment and raise awareness for mental health.
“I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do. I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we could even ever imagine,” Phelps said. “This is something that’s gonna take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and people who are willing to help.”