U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who is retiring from the sport he has dominated at the Olympics after this summer’s games in Japan, says he suffers from OCD, anxiety and medication. And he’s concerned about fellow Olympians facing similar health risks.
“We know that medical conditions have already taken an upsurge at the last Games in Rio and we are counting on athletes to be up front about issues they are facing and not be afraid to seek help if their illness threatens their performance,” Michael Chernoff, the USOC’s national team physician, said in a statement. “I am pleased to hear from Michael that he is taking these concerns seriously and is asking teammates and fellow athletes to listen carefully to their bodies.”
But that statement ignores the fact that some Olympic athletes are private about the medical and mental health challenges they face.
Phelps, for example, discusses his anxiety in his latest book “No Limits.”
In a recent interview with ESPN about his book, Phelps called his anxiety “an everyday battle that almost destroyed my life.”
“It wasn’t taking away from what I love, it just was making me very unsure,” he said. “But it would come in waves and either one of those takes over me or I’d train harder, which would just make me worse.”
And he also discusses a condition his doctor calls obsessive compulsive disorder.
But you won’t find more detail about Phelps’ anxiety and OCD in other reports by USOC. In 2014, a USA Today report that swimmer and 10-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps was treating his chronic gastrointestinal issues through an anti-inflammatory medication got spun as Phelps being on medication instead of a diet. And in a 2015 USA Today article about doping accusations against Phelps’ teammate Ryan Lochte, USOC put out a statement that the organization “proudly supports Michael and Ryan as they build upon their careers in our sport.” Lochte was competing at the time, but USOC wasn’t concerned about him competing.
If the USOC had concerns about Phelps’ post-Olympic medaling career — or about any athletes — they are keeping them to themselves.
The Washington Post’s Sarah Barshop asked the USOC for specifics about Phelps’ OCD and his care, including how he was treating it. The Post was given a short statement.
In a 2015 interview, Phelps said his current medication helped “stretch” his heart.
“It pushes your cardiovascular system to the limit and stretches it. Every now and then when it just starts to choke, it stops,” he said. “But if I don’t take it, I have to double up with another pill. So I’ve got two meds, something, every day, until it wears off, and I have to wear the pill case on my leg so I can take it in my swim suit.”
The USOC offered the following statement: “The Olympic athlete medical program is confidential and it is the USOC’s position that it does not discuss details of these confidential athletes.”
Over the years, athletes have approached the USOC with concerns about their medicated brains, not just because the USOC isn’t willing to talk about it, but because the USOC recognizes the risks.
In a 2015 survey of the Americans in the pro and amateur sports world, written by the University of Michigan’s Gail Asper, researchers found that more than one-third had used prescription medication during competitions or practice for aches, pains, anxiety or depression, or were more likely to use sleep drugs.
Researchers also wrote that Olympic athletes and professional athletes — many of whom live in large, close-knit communities that support and may even discourage a troubled Olympian — have been known to abuse medications in order to perform at higher levels.
A few USA Gymnastics members who have spoken about their long struggles with depression or anxiety, such as Karol Martis, have been rewarded with medals and fame. But for athletes who are struggling with serious health concerns, they may not be so lucky.
One study found that in the years between 2000 and 2009, more than a dozen women who were believed to have been sexually abused by their US Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, went on to commit suicide, according to court documents. It is still not clear why all of these women took their own lives.
Over the years, I have seen some athletes who seek help with their anxiety and depression — but maybe not all of them.