Michael Phelps opens up about depression, says he thought about killing himself after Olympics

Michael Phelps' new mission outside the pool

When you think of Michael Phelps, you probably picture him celebrating in the pool after shattering a world record, or standing victorious on top of an Olympic podium holding a gold medal up to the cameras. In short, you picture him on top of the world with a smile spread across his face. He is, after all, the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 medals, 23 of them gold.

But it turns out that -- in the aftermath of the 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics -- all those gold medals did little to alleviate the feelings of depression in his life. 

"There was one point, I didn't want to be alive," the legendary swimmer tells CBS News in a candid new interview, revealing just how bad post-Olympic depression can get for elite athletes.

"You know, as Olympians, you set four years to build up to this moment. And then, after it's over, you're kind of lost in a way," he explains. "You don't really know what to do. You don't know where to go. You don't know who to talk to. And a lot of us do suffer from depression."

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Michael Phelps poses on the podium after winning the gold medal in the men's 400m individual medley final, at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images

In fact, after the 2012 Games, it got so bad that Phelps once checked to see how many sleeping pills he had left in his Ambien perscription. If there had been more than one left, he told David Axelrod last month, who knows what might have happened.

"I think it's something that nobody's really talked about in the past because we're supposed to be this big, macho, strong person that has no weaknesses," Phelps tells CBS News. "You know, we're supposed to be perfect. And for me, I carried it along for so long and never really talked about it... part of that was probably just a fear of rejection." 

Before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, however, his thinking on the matter shifted. After years of suffering silently, he decided to open up about his mental health and get help. Since that moment, he says, life has been easier.

"One thing that I went through and I was able to understand is: It's OK to not be OK. Right? Like nobody's perfect. ... We're all going to have struggles and hard times. And for me, the most important thing was just opening up and talking about it, communicating about it, asking for help," Phelps says.

Since 2016, the former Olympian has seen therapists. He's spent time in a treatment center. And he's toured the country speaking out about his mental health struggles in the hope that those experiences might save someone, somewhere, going through something similar. 

"For me to be able to go through that, if I can save one life, two lives, a hundred lives," he tells CBS News, "that's way better than winning a gold medal."

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