Michael Phelps: A Golden Shoulder to Lean On
Nearly a week into their most recent therapeutic reunion, Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett, two giants of Olympic swimming, sat down to breakfast at a packed restaurant and wondered how they would explain themselves to their children someday.
The conversations they foresaw had nothing to do with Phelps’s record-shattering medal haul or with Hackett’s defiance of debilitating illnesses during a decade-long dominance of the 1,500-meter freestyle, the most grueling event in the pool, that earned him the nickname Captain Courageous from his fellow Australians.
They were reliving dark moments, times when they posed a danger to themselves and others.
Phelps, 32, imagined the day when his toddler son, Boomer, would refer to one of those low points: “You were going 86 miles an hour in a 45-mile zone. Why can’t I?”
Hackett, 37, laughed ruefully and told Phelps he had already spoken with a child psychologist about how to guide his 8-year-old twins through the shambles of his post-swimming life.
“There will be conversations that need to be had,” Hackett said, “and a certain strength you’ll have to find.”
Such exchanges are the reason Hackett traveled 8,000 miles from Australia to Arizona last month to stay with Phelps and his wife, Nicole. It wasn’t his first visit. He has used their home as something of a halfway house, joking that he spends so much time with them that he is getting mail there.
His life in Australia, where distance swimmers can become celebrities on a par with N.F.L. quarterbacks in the United States, started careening out of control several years ago. In February, it derailed in a very public fashion.
He visited his parents’ Gold Coast home, and his father, Neville, called the police to report that Hackett had been drinking and had suffered a mental breakdown that sent him into a rage. The Olympian was taken to a detention center in handcuffs — a scene that was broadcast across Australia and set off a social media frenzy.
He was released without being charged, but his family was unable to find him the next morning. Alarmed, Neville Hackett stepped before television cameras, described his son as a missing person in urgent need of help, and implored him to come home. “Grant, let us know where you are,” he said. “We love you and we want to help you.”
Phelps followed the drama from Paris, where he and Nicole spent Valentine’s Day. He learned about what was happening in Australia through a text message from Allison Schmitt, another Olympic swimmer.
Phelps, who considers Hackett one of his dearest friends, sent a flurry of texts to him and then paced in his hotel room while he waited to hear back. Nicole Phelps recalled her husband saying several times, with increasing urgency, “We have to convince him to come home with us.”
Hackett soon contacted his family, saying he was safe and simply hiding from the humiliation. Phelps could empathize with Hackett in a way few others could. Along with his 28 Olympic medals, Phelps accrued two arrests for driving under the influence — the second one after the police stopped him for going almost twice the speed limit on a road in Baltimore, his hometown. He had also been photographed holding a bong at a private party, an image that ended up in a British tabloid.
After the second D.U.I. arrest, in 2014, Phelps spent eight weeks at the Meadows, an Arizona treatment center, to deal with the anxiety and depression that he had tried to overcome on his own after the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Recognizing how difficult it is for many people to recognize their vulnerabilities and reach out for help, Phelps has devoted himself to unraveling the stigma of mental illness.
“I want to be able to get out in public and talk and say, ‘Yes, I’ve done these great things in the pool, but I’m also a human,’ ” Phelps said, sweeping his gaze across the restaurant. “I’m going through the same struggles as a lot of the people in this room.”
Phelps has started some public speaking on the topic and has become an informal counselor to the stars, lending an ear to the golfer Tiger Woods after his arrest in May on charges of driving under the influence. A toxicology report revealed no alcohol in Woods’s system, but rather a mix of four prescription drugs and the active ingredient in marijuana.