It was October 2014, during family week at the Meadows, a residential treatment center in the Arizona desert, that Nicole Phelps saw her future coming into focus.
She was there to support her then-boyfriend, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, whose highly publicized DUI the previous month had exposed his debilitating depression. The couple, who had dated on and off since 2007, had recently reestablished their relationship, and Nicole realized that a life with Michael would include standing by him through ongoing struggles with his mental health. “I recognized that there were things that I needed to accept and understand better in order for us to move forward together,” she recalls.
But it was when Sports Illustrated published a cover story in 2015 about Michael’s troubles, including suicidal ideation, that she understood that mental health would be at the center of their public life as well. “That’s when he opened up,” she says. “That was our first forward motion toward changing the way people see mental health.”
As Michael became more public about his challenges, Nicole stepped into the spotlight too, advocating for mental-health awareness on behalf of the Michael Phelps Foundation (MPF). In addition to focusing on swimming and water safety, MPF offers emotional well-being programming for youth through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Special Olympics and is developing further initiatives in partnership with other organizations.
“This is where we are going to make the biggest difference,” she says. “I know that Michael’s legacy, at the end of the day, is in the mental-health field.”
Q&A With Nicole Phelps
Experience Life | Prior to becoming Michael’s partner and wife, did you have any experience with mental-health issues?
Nicole Phelps | I think I saw it at a very young age. There were struggles around me, but not diagnosed.
I know I experienced depression when I was in high school. I had a very good girlfriend who died in an automobile accident my junior year. After the funeral there was no support, none of that.
And my senior year, a girl who had the same first and last name as I did was also killed in an automobile accident. I went to her funeral and heard my name repeated over and over, which was very difficult to experience at 17. Again, no counseling or anything.
EL | You said you realized when Michael was in rehab that there were things you needed to understand in order to move forward together. What have you learned?
NP | I have learned that I can’t take on anything that he’s experiencing — I can’t fix it. I can’t change the way that he’s thinking. Everything that he’s feeling, whether or not I think it’s right, is valid because that’s what he’s experiencing in that moment.
Previously I might have said, “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just turn it off? Why can’t you just be happy?”
As a culture, I think, we have this idea that if you wake up and say, “I’m happy,” you’re going to be OK, and that’s not true. It doesn’t work like that.
Also, I’ve learned better how to listen. People carry a lens of whatever their experiences are, and they often look at what you’re sharing with them through that lens. I think that’s how I grew up, with a constant “You should” or “Why don’t you” or “This would fix that.”
But once you take away that lens you can say, “OK, I’m just going to listen to you and hear what you have to say.” I do this with Michael a lot. I want to be sure I’m listening with the right ear. I have learned that listening will make you feel much more connected to that other person than trying to fix the situation.
EL | For Michael, decades of competition brought about an identity crisis. How have your own competition experiences in the Miss California and Miss USA pageants affected your sense of identity?
NP | There’s a saying in the pageant world that you arrive in a limo and leave in a taxi. I competed in my first Miss California pageant in 2007. In 2010 I won Miss California, and when I went into the Miss USA 2010 pageant, I was told I was a favorite to win, but instead I placed in the top 10. It was like, All right, the next girl is in. They don’t care about you anymore.
During that time, my mom lost her home because the person she was paying rent to wasn’t paying his bills. So, after 14 days of competing in Miss USA, I came home to not having a home.
So, when you break identity down, I was a daughter. I was a pageant winner. Now I’m a wife. I’m a mom. OK, those are little pieces of my story, but they don’t define who I am.
We put so much emphasis on identity that we’ve forgotten the importance of purpose. Purpose is more stable.
EL | Speaking of purpose, please tell us a little about your role at the Michael Phelps Foundation.
NP | I’m called the ambassador, but I wear as many hats as I possibly can. I worked with our director to build out the mental-health programming. I speak on behalf of the foundation. I’m with Michael day to day, constantly dreaming and conceptualizing different ways we can take the foundation.
As for my purpose, though, it’s very important to me to teach kids that it’s OK to have struggles. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be angry. When I look at the mental-health piece of the foundation, it’s as big to me as water safety.
EL | A lot of your purpose now also centers on raising your three young children. What is something you have learned from motherhood?
NP | Michael has taught me a lot, and my boys have taught me even more, about not trying to fix. Oftentimes, if one of my boys is crying, I will sit there in silence for a while, and then I’ll say, “Do you need a hug? Do you need to just sit here? You’re having really big emotions. I’m not going anywhere.”
What if instead I would try to distract him? What if I would say, “Hey, let’s go look at those butterflies, they’re so happy!” — then what have I done? I haven’t allowed him to be part of his emotions and understand for himself how to work through them.
I also think it’s important for kids to see our emotions. If we pretend in front of our kids, they know it. They sense it.
I had a meltdown the other day, and I just told the kids, “I’m very angry right now and I am going to take some deep breaths in the other room. I’ll be back in a minute.” This teaches them that they can take their space, too. They can take time to calm down and then we can talk about it.
EL | Between your family and MPF, you take care of a lot of people. How do you take care of yourself?
NP | One of my biggest tools is therapy. Having that support has helped me be stronger when Michael is having his own issues.
Routine is also important. There’s so much to be said about the day-in, day-out predictability and safety that our family routine builds for all of us. If your brain is going crazy and you’re having a high-anxiety day, just knowing what comes next in the day makes things easier.