Michael Phelps, best may lie ahead after rehab

For almost five days in the fall of 2014, the most decorated Olympian Michael Phelps in history lay curled in a fetal position in his Baltimore home, crestfallen and fearful, embarrassed at his behavior and uncertain of his future. Over three Olympics, from 2004 through ’12, Michael Phelps had won 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall, each total more than anyone ever. His swimming had been transformed by NBC into a nightly television miniseries, and millions watched as Phelps splashed to victories for America over the rest of the world. His family watched at poolside, supporting players in an emotional drama that was the paradigm of Olympic success and Olympic packaging. His story had the perfect arc: In 2000 he was a prodigy; in ’04 he was brilliant but imperfect; in ’08 he was unbeatable; in ’12 he was a legend on his farewell tour, diminished but still great. Three times he emerged a celebrity­—each time a little more famous, a little more wealthy and a little more entrenched in the mythology of his quadrennial feats.

Michael Phelps life had been turned into a flat-screen American athletic dream: A skinny boy with big feet (and ears) had been transformed by endless laps and a wise coach into a red-white-and-blue, gold-medal-winning machine. Imagine our relief when he announced last spring that he would swim in one more Olympics next summer in Rio de Janeiro, his fifth (and surely his last?). Yet this was just half the story. Phelps was also an adult approaching 30, whose reality was approximating the two-dimensional cardboard cutout on all those television screens. That skinny boy had failed to find the same traction on land that came so naturally in the water. He had never come to terms with the father who was divorced from his caring and supportive mother when Michael Phelps was nine. He had found a woman to love and lost her. He had welcomed far too many sudden friends and had embraced the perks of affluence and celebrity more than was healthy. “I look back now,” says Phelps. “I lived in a bubble for a long time.”

Now that bubble was a prison of sorts. On the night of Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, Phelps drove from his home to the Horseshoe ­Casino near Baltimore’s harbor. At 1:40 a.m. he was stopped by an officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority while exiting the Fort McHenry Tunnel. Police had clocked Phelps’s white 2014 Range Rover at 84 mph in a 45-mph zone, and observed Phelps driving erratically. According to a police report obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Phelps failed two field-sobriety­ tests and a Breathalyzer put his blood-alcohol level at .14, above the state driving limit of .08. He was charged with DUI, excessive speed and crossing double lane lines. (Last December he pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge.) A decade earlier, at age 19, shortly after the Athens Olympics, Phelps had pleaded guilty to driving while impaired; in ’09 he had been entangled in controversy (and suspended for three months by USA Swimming) after a British tabloid published a photo of him smoking a bong. This arrest was much bigger, not just because it was the third incident in a decade, but because the speed and level of intoxication made it more dangerous and hinted at larger problems.

Phelps’s mother, Debbie, who directs the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, got the news at work in a call from Phelps’s agent, Peter Carlisle. “I just put my head on the desk,” says Debbie. “I thought, Oh, my God, here we go again. How terrible is the world going to be to my son?”

His father, Fred, who spent 28 years as a Maryland State Trooper before retiring from that position in 2003, works in commercial vehicle enforcement training. He got a call from a friend at the transportation authority who had seen the night’s arrest log. Cops take care of cops. “I asked if Michael was O.K.,” says Fred. “He said he was O.K. and then gave me the details, and I just thought, Oh, jeez.”

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