Michael Phelps on Why It's 'Challenging' for Athletes to Admit Their Mental Health Struggles

"For years I stuffed my emotions away because I couldn't show that weakness or that vulnerability — it could give my competitors an edge," Michael Phelps tells PEOPLE

As Olympians around the world are getting in their last few weeks of training before the Tokyo Games begin later this month, Michael Phelps is wondering whether their minds will be as ready as their bodies.

"All of these curveballs that were thrown at them were crazy," the Olympic swimming champ tells PEOPLE in an interview in this week's issue, of the one-year delay of the Games. "We spend four years preparing for the Olympics so to add a year to that, you have more preparation but there's the voice in the back of your head that's second-guessing. It can be very challenging. I was just praying that they were taking care of what they could, trying to stay on their routine as much as they could."

Phelps, 36, who will be a spectator for the Tokyo Games after winning 28 medals in the five previous Olympics, is all too familiar with how mental health struggles can take a toll on an athlete's life and their family. "For years I stuffed my emotions away because I couldn't show that weakness or that vulnerability — it could give my competitors an edge," he says. "As an athlete, it's challenging, especially for a male. We're supposed to be big and strong and macho, not somebody who struggles with their emotions. But we're all human beings."

A crisis point came in 2014 after a DUI arrest put Phelps at the center of a media frenzy that found him locked in his room, contemplating suicide. "Multiple days being in my room, not wanting to be alive, not really knowing what to do, where to go, who to turn to, being lost," he recalls. "That's when I actually asked for help."

A 45-day stay in a treatment facility finally led him to confront his own depression, after which he was able to return to the 2016 Rio Games healthier mentally and physically, and he went on to set a record as the most decorated Olympian ever.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps in The Weight of Gold trailer. Michael Phelps

Since retiring after Rio, Phelps has taken on another role with the same dedication he gave to swimming: as an advocate for mental health. "I've seen firsthand how many athletes, how many humans are struggling just like I am," he says. "The reason I'm still here today is because I've opened up and talked about things that are hard to talk about."

Want to get the biggest stories from PEOPLE every weekday? Subscribe to our new podcast, PEOPLE Every Day, to get the essential celebrity, entertainment and human interest news stories Monday through Friday.

Incredible Photos From the Summer Olympics Through the Years
Michael Phelps at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Phelps, whose Michael Phelps Foundation provides water safety and health and wellness programs for youth around the world, has made a point of supporting fellow athletes who may be struggling, like former teammate Ryan Lochte and skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, who said the swimmer took "time out of his day to give me hope, experience, strength."

Phelps has also spoken up for tennis star Naomi Osaka, who pulled out of the French Open citing mental health concerns. "It's a powerful message," he says of her decision. "I was applauding it. To see that she's taking care of her physical health and her mental health equally is amazing."

Listen to more of PEOPLE's interview with Michael Phelps below on our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.

Getting more people to value that is a mission Phelps says he's putting all his energy into. "For me, this is more important than anything I've ever done in my career in the pool," he says. "I want to save and help as many people as I possibly can."

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Related Articles