Legendary U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps will compete in his 5th Olympic games this summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But it’s something that was almost prevented by tragedy: Phelps revealed in a recent ESPN documentary that he was considering suicide in 2014 but was saved in part by reading Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.
Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time for any sport – by a lot. 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).
But behind the extraordinary success, Phelps was wounded. His father had abandoned his family when Phelps was 9, something that continued to haunt him into adulthood. Phelps had another problem when he retired from swimming after the 2012 London Olympics: a lack of purpose. Swimming had dominated his life since he was a child, and when it was over, he didn’t know what to do with his life.
So he threw himself into partying, and he 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. And it did: on September 30th, 2014, Phelps was pulled over and cited for drunk driving. It was his second DUI in 10 years.
This was a new personal low. Not only did Phelps disappoint those close to him, but also sullied his public reputation. 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 says 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 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.”
That’s when friend and former NFL player Ray Lewis stepped in to help. In addition to encouraging Phelps that he could make it through his dark time, and advising him to seek the help of a rehab center, Lewis, who is public about his Christian faith, gave Phelps 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 says Phelps called him to talk about the book. “Man, this book is crazy,” Lewis says Phelps told him, “I cannot thank you enough, man. You saved my life.”
It’s not clear whether the book made Phelps a Christian, though it seems to have made him more aware of God: “It’s turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself,” Phelps told ESPN, “and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”
He added: “It helped me when I was in a place when I needed the most help.”
In addition to pulling him away from suicide, the book and his time in rehab convinced Phelps to try to reconcile with his father, which he has been able to do.
Since Phelps told his story to ESPN, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, responded to Phelps publicly on Twitter: