As the 2016 Olympics drew to a close yesterday, I’m sure all of us who participated—even if it was only marveling over the achievements of the contestants—were inspired by some of the exciting events we witnessed. To me (and many), the most exciting story is that of Michael Phelps, who was the flag bearer for the U.S. in the Parade of Nations and is the most decorated Olympian in world history. As of today, Phelps has participated in five Olympics and won 28 medals, 23 of them gold (dwarfing the second highest record of 9 golds). If you don’t know his story, let me tell you just a few of the highlights I’ve learned. Michael Fred Phelps II started swimming when he was seven, and by the time he was ten, he held the U.S. record for his age in the 100-meter butterfly. By fifteen, he became the youngest male to make the U.S. Olympic swim team in 68 years. Although he didn’t win any medals in the 2000 Olympics, he did finish with the team, and his career path was set! During the 2004 and 2008 Olympics he became increasingly famous for his incredible achievements, so much so that he was even suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, which was proved to be totally false after he passed all nine tests that were administered to him during the 2008 Olympics.
Although Phelps played it straight as an athlete, he had serious problems with alcohol, which caused him trouble as early as 2004 when he was arrested for driving under the influence in Maryland. Over the next decade, his personal life continued to deteriorate, until, as he explained on ESPN, “I was a train wreck. I was like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth. There were times where I didn’t want to be here. It was not good. I felt lost.”
In 2014, Phelps was arrested again and given a DUI (for driving under the influence). According to a report in Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint, “In the immediate aftermath of that DUI arrest, he cut himself off from family and other loved ones and ‘thought the world would just be better off without me . . . I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life’.” At that point, a friend (Ray Lewis, All-Pro linebacker and devout Christian) persuaded Phelps to enter a rehab program and gave him a book to read: The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, which Phelps read. Phelps told ESPN that the book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.” In fact, reading the book had a radically transforming impact on Michael Phelps. He told Ray Lewis, “Man this book is crazy . . . The thing that’s going on . . . oh my gosh . . . my brain, I can’t thank you . . . enough, man. You saved my life.”
And, indeed, it seems to have done just that! According to the Los Angeles Times, 31-year-old Michael Phelps at times “shook his head in disbelief at the stream of victories. He repeatedly laughed, kissed his son, Boomer, after races and shed tears during some medal ceremonies.”
The motto for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has been “Live Your Passion,” and it’s obvious that Michael Phelps has been doing just that. But, he’s learned to lean on God to turn his passion into joyful reality. His story has inspired me, and I hope it also encourages you! What’s your passion? God can do in us what we cannot accomplish on our own! He is able.
“And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
(For the fuller story of Michael Phelps conversion, see http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/discourse )