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Michael Phelps, ‘Are You an Alcoholic?’

By Dorri Olds 05/02/16

In a candid interview with The Today Show, Phelps discussed the downward spiral that led to a 45-day turn in rehab.

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Photo NBC/Today Show

Michael Phelps, winner of more Olympic medals than any other athlete, had too many demons to out-swim. Last week, Phelps told Today’s Matt Lauer, “Personally, I had a lot of struggle getting through the four years after ’08.”

He’s admitted he no longer knew what he wanted to do, but it wasn’t swimming. Leading into the 2008 London Olympic Games, Phelps said, “I didn’t want anything to do with the sport. I think I was just over it.” He described his 2014 arrest for a second DUI as a cry for help. When Phelps pleaded guilty, the judge warned that if he had one more DUI, he would do jail time. So Phelps checked himself into The Meadows rehab center in Arizona.

People close to the athlete saw the trouble he was in long before he saw it. “I sent myself down a downward spiral,” he told Lauer. “I think it was more of, of a sign than anything else, that I had to get something under control, whatever it was.”

He confessed, “Honestly, I felt like at one point I didn’t want to see another day. I felt like it should be over.”

When he referred to his 2014 arrest, Phelps quoted a phrase commonly heard in 12-step meetings: “Everything happened for a reason.” But, when Lauer asked Phelps if he considers himself an alcoholic, the Olympian said, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

The athlete said, “I know I have probably moments where I have gone off the deep end where I shouldn’t. I would say binged, more than anything else.”

Phelps’ first arrest for drunk driving was only a few months after winning eight Olympic medals in 2004 (six gold, two bronze). By 2008, he no longer wanted to swim but hid those feelings from the public and continued the sport anyway. That year he won eight gold. Later he told Us Weekly, “I forced myself to do something that I really didn’t want to do anymore. I was in a really dark place, not wanting to be alive anymore.”

After the 2012 London Olympics, where he won four gold and two bronze, Phelps retired from swimming. But now he’s back and in August will compete in the Olympic Games in Rio. If he triumphs again, Phelps has a chance at beating another world record—he may become the oldest swimmer to win an Olympic medal.

The most interesting part of Phelps' ambivalent answer about his relationship to alcohol is that anyone who is not an alcoholic would probably not be ambivalent about it.

Check out Today's interview with Michael Phelps below:

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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