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'Scary ups and downs': How Michael Phelps' depression affects his family

The 23-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer says the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for him.
/ Source: TODAY

Nine months into the COVID-19 epidemic, swimming legend Michael Phelps, who has been open about his mental health struggles, says he often feels like he’s sinking.

“I’ve had some scary ups and downs,” the 35-year-old Phelps told TODAY Parents. “Sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball in a corner. I need to be alone or I feel like I should be alone."

Phelps’ depression affects his entire family, especially his wife of four years, Nicole, with whom he shares sons, Boomer, 4, Beckett, 2, and Maverick, 15 months.

“Nicole loves me and wants to help. She wants me to get better,” he explained. “But she’s also struggling herself. She needs that support as well. I know it’s hard for her.”

Phelps noted that Nicole, 35, gives him the time he needs to process his feelings by journaling or meditating and then they lift weights together in their gym.

“I feel like Nicole and I are closer than ever,” Phelps revealed.

The Arizona-based couple is always honest with their kids when Phelps is struggling.

“They understand there are times when I need a break, where I say, ‘You know, Daddy’s having a hard day,’ or ‘Daddy’s not feeling good,’” Phelps said. “It’s showing that it’s OK to NOT be OK. Mental health is something that’s so important in our family.”

At just 4-years-old, Boomer is able to identify and express his feelings.

“He’ll openly say, ‘My heart hurts,’ ‘I’m sad,’” Phelps shared. “Beckett is getting there, where he’s talking about his needs. And as a dad, I’m extremely proud. It took me a long time to be able to do those things.”

The 23-time gold medalist opened up to TODAY Parents while discussing his partnership with the Colgate Optimism Project. The program celebrates six young people who are committed to changing the world. Each member was found through a nationwide search and received mentorship, resources and grant funding up to $10,000 to help further their ideas.

Phelps is blown away by all of the members, including Karina Popovich, who launched Makers for COVID-19, a global coalition that has 3D-printed more than 82,000 units of protective gear for medical facilities in need.

“These kids are really going to make a difference,” Phelps said. “It’s just so incredible to watch.”