As the most decorated Olympian of all sports of all time, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps carried the American flag Friday evening in the parade of 2016 Olympic athletes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But he's carrying other, deep-seated personal elements as well into his fifth Olympic games. He's enjoying this magnificent event after going through a very dark period of his life after which he revealed Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life diverted him from committing suicide.
Phelps revealed in a recent ESPN documentary he was considering suicide in 2014, even after his extraordinary success. He not only holds the overall medal count record with 22 medals (the second most is 18), but also the gold medal record with 18 (the second most is only 9), reports ChurchPop.
Phelps' father had abandoned his family when Phelps was 9, something that continued to haunt him into adulthood. He had another challenge rooted in lack of direction when he retired from swimming after the 2012 London Olympics. Swimming had dominated his life since he was a child, and when it was over, he said he didn't know what to do with his life.
So the swimmer instead threw himself into partying, and isolated close family members and his old coach in the process. "I thought it was going in a direction where something really bad was gonna' happen," his coach Bob Bowman told ESPN. It did: on Sept. 30, 2014, Phelps was pulled over and cited for drunk driving, making it his second DUI in 10 years.
Phelps had decided to return to competitive swimming in 2014, but was dropped from the U.S. 2015 World Aquatics Championships team because of the DUI.
For the next five days, Phelps said he stayed curled up in his bedroom. "For a moment, I thought it was going to be end of my life, literally, just because it was like... 'how many times is he going to mess up'. I was like, it would probably be better without me."
"I didn't really leave my room. I didn't eat, I didn't really sleep. I just figured it was the best thing to do to end my life," he recalled.
Friend and former NFL player Ray Lewis thankfully stepped in to encourage Phelps to seek the help of a rehab center, and he gave him a book: The Purpose Driven Life, by mega-church baptist pastor Rick Warren.
After checking into a rehab center, Phelps started reading the book -- and it changed his life.
Just a few days into rehab, Lewis said Phelps called him to talk about the book. "Man, this book is crazy," Lewis said Phelps told him, "I cannot thank you enough, man. You saved my life."
The book made Phelps more aware of God, according to what he told ESPN: "It's turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself, and there is a purpose for me on this planet. It helped me when I was in a place when I needed the most help."
Additionally, the book and his time in rehab convinced Phelps to try to reconcile with his father, which he has been able to do.
On Phelps' Facebook page, one fan, Brittany L Buonocore, summed up the reaction in a meaningful way: "Michael, I watched the 15 minute ESPN documentary video "The Evolution of Michael Phelps" and I just have to let you know that it was so emotional to watch. I hate that you fell into such deep depression after Beijing but so thankful that you were able to pick yourself up and carry on. Look at you now- you have a beautiful wife, Boomer, and are headed to another Olympics. I know how it feels to try to "top" yourself and how it can make you not want anything to do with what you previously loved. I want you to know that America isn't interested in you "topping" yourself. We are all SO incredibly proud of you and honored to have watched you transform into a wonderful person. So glad you reconciled with your Dad. I know that pain too and the power of forgiveness should never be underestimated. You are an inspiration to me and to an incredible amount of people. We all have bad stretches in our lives but a person's true character is shown in how they pick themselves up and carry on. Thank you for sharing your story with me and the world. We love you and can't wait to watch you in your 5th Olympic games in 2 days. Carry that flag high and wave it proud. In tears now...so unbelievably happy for you and I am rooting for you. I'm Dvr-ing all of your races!"