“This feels weird,” offers Michael Phelps, flashing a guarded grin.
I couldn’t agree more, I tell him.
We’re seated in children’s chairs situated across from one another in an elementary school classroom—Harlem’s Alain L. Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship, to be exact. A small table, presumably intended for the study of multiplication tables or D’Nealian (do kids these days still learn cursive?), stands between us. The Olympic/swimming/sports legend has just given a rousing speech to an auditorium full of grade-schoolers about the importance of water conservation, urging each and every kid to turn off the faucet while they brush their chompers, which saves about four gallons of water. He’s partnered with Colgate for #EveryDropCounts, a campaign asking people across the country to pledge to do the same.
So here we are, sitting in these tiny chairs. I mention that the last time I saw him sitting in a chair he was in decidedly different spirits. It was just prior to the 200-meter butterfly Olympics semifinals in Rio. Phelps was set to go up against his rival, South Africa’s Chad Le Clos, who narrowly defeated him in the same event at the 2012 games. As Le Clos shadowboxed in front of him, the camera trained on Phelps—face cloaked in a Team USA hood, bulging headphones blasting Future’s “Stick Talk”—giving the most intense game face you’ve ever seen.
“People always ask me, ‘Can you replicate it?’ and I tell them, ‘You can probably find a way for me to replicate that face, but you’re going to have to really piss me off,’” he says. “To get that mad is tough. That was just raw emotion coming out, because that race is one that I especially wanted back. I saw the lights on the camera and knew, ‘Crap, this is going viral. Whatever resting B-face I have on right there is going to take over, and there’s nothing I can do.’”
Over the course of our talk, Phelps candidly discussed his mental health struggles, including his low point following a 2014 DUI arrest, and much more.
SOURCE: MARLOW STERN
The Daily Beast