Living with anxiety and depression means Michael Phelps has good days and bad days. But the swimming icon’s love for his wife, Nicole Phelps, remains constant.
“For 15 years, Nicole has seen me go up and down,” Phelps, 36, told TODAY. “There’s no other person that would be able to support me like she has. She’s the glue that holds all of us together.”
The “us” Phelps is referring to, of course, is his family. He and Nicole, 36, share sons Boomer, 5, Beckett 4, and Maverick, 2.
Phelps said that his children — especially Boomer, who turns 6 on Thursday — are aware that their dad battles mental illness.
“Sometimes my kids will just see me leave the room. And that’s because I’m overwhelmed, and my emotions are firing on all cylinders and I can’t think straight,” the 23-time gold medalist revealed.
That’s when Nicole will step in so that Phelps can take the space he needs to calm down and recenter. The former Miss California understands that’s what her husband needs in order to feel better.
“Maybe I’ll scream, maybe I’ll write things down,” he said. “But it’s getting those things out instead of letting them pile up inside of you.”
Phelps added that Nicole is also helping him to work through childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment. Phelps' parents divorced when he was 9, and he was largely raised by his mother. Often, Nicole will find a book or a quote that she thinks will resonate with Phelps.
"Not having a father growing up... all of these emotions that are coming up are very intense," he said. "I want to be a better dad than my father was to me."
Phelps, who experienced “scary” lows during COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, said that he’s on a good place at the moment thanks to medication and talk therapy.
“But there are still days where I don’t feel like me,” he explained. “My depression and anxiety aren’t going to just disappear.”
Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, spoke to TODAY in 2017 about compartmentalizing his dark feelings rather than working through what was bothering him.
“That sent me down a spiral staircase real quick and I found myself in a spot where I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” he said at the time.
For that reason, Phelps and Nicole talk “nonstop” about feelings and mental health with Boomer, Beckett and Maverick.
“The more you can get your emotions out in the open, the less extra weight that you’re carrying on through life,” he said. “We’re teaching them just to communicate. That’s something I struggled with throughout my whole entire life.”
Phelps opened up to TODAY while promoting his partnership with Talkspace and its “Permission Slip” campaign. The initiative encourages people to prioritize their well-being — without guilt. You might also give yourself permission to not be perfect or to set boundaries.
Phelps said he’s giving himself permission to forgive himself as he navigates a new chapter of his life.
“I’m still learning to just be a human,” Phelps said. “For most of my career, I saw myself as a swimmer. But I’m not a swimmer, I’m a person — and I have emotions like everyone else.”
“My journey outside of water is really just beginning,” he continued. “So I’m trying to give myself forgiveness when I slip up, or don’t do something perfectly.”