Who is Michael Phelps, exactly? In the pool, he’s the world’s most decorated Olympian. At home, he’s a dedicated father and husband to his son, Boomer, and wife, Nicole Johnson. On social media, he’s building a lasting, impactful brand. He’s also a philanthropist, a great white shark racer, an Under Armour muse, and, truthfully, a million other things. Now, after spending nearly two decades in the spotlight and picking up more gold medals than most athletes would know what to do with, the legendary swimmer finally has a chance to embrace every side of himself.
The first item on his to-do list? Watching Game of Thrones. Second? Save the water. All of it. All of the water.
Michael will now go from making his mark on the world one stroke at a time to saving the planet one drop at a time. For anyone else, the task might be too daunting, too massive to even comprehend. But this is Michael Phelps — a name that is, at this point, practically synonymous with water — and by partnering with Colgate’s Save Water campaign, #everydropcounts, the laser-like focus that helped him take home medal after medal will now be put toward protecting the earth’s most important resource. If anyone can make a difference, it’s him. POPSUGAR recently sat down with Michael to discuss everything from why the Save Water campaign is so important to him to the new perspective he’s gleaned from living life in the public eye. He might be retiring from swimming, but the world hasn’t seen the last from him. Far from it.
POPSUGAR: Of all the campaigns that you could have signed up for — and I’m sure you get offers all the time — why was the Save Water initiative so important to you?
Michael Phelps: I mean, if you look at me, basically my whole entire life I’ve been around water. So when you look at a stat like, “If you leave the faucet running for two minutes while you brush your teeth you waste four gallons of water,” to me that’s mind-blowing. There are so many people that don’t even have access to clean water, and people leave their faucets running. For me it was something that fit with things that I believe in. If you look at all the sponsors that I work with, all the companies that I’m a part of, that’s the only thing that I want. I don’t want something that’s forced. Especially now being a father, trying to teach your kids the right thing to do. . . it was just the perfect fit for me and for my family. It’s been fun, being able to just get everybody involved in something that could help change our world. Especially trying to reach our younger generation, like 4 years old to 14 years old, trying to get them really aware of conserving water, because every tiny drop counts.
PS: That love of water and helping people is also tied into the Michael Phelps Foundation and your water safety program. What has been the most meaningful interaction with some of the children you’ve helped through that program?
MP: I’ve been able to get to know a bunch of little kids through the foundation. A little boy from Tennessee [who] lost his father, he goes to the Boys & Girls Club, and his mom didn’t want him to go in the water. She was afraid, so he went through one year of trying to learn how to swim, didn’t make it. Second year, he came back, didn’t learn. Third year, he came back, finally learned. And ever since that, he was able to go through those steps and through the foundation’s process, he was able to learn to swim, be more responsible, better behaved, everything came together. With the foundation, it’s not only learning how to swim. It’s tools that you’re able to use throughout your whole entire life. It’s going to help you grow and make better decisions, be active, be healthy, and also be water-safe. It’s things that kids can take on literally for the rest of their lives and learn and grow from those experiences.
PS: Do you plan on expanding its reach?
MP: We’re in the process of adding a mental health side of it. One of the things that I went through that I hated was the eight basic emotions, or six basic emotions. Why am I upset, why am I angry . . . all of these different things and basically being able to realize why you’re feeling that way and just recognizing it. That’s a huge thing that allows you to grow as an individual. I can wake up on an overcast day on the East Coast and feel depressed because I don’t see the sun. So I recognize that, and then have to find other ways to not feel that way, which would then cause me to go into a spiral. It’s been really cool to watch kids never give up. That’s the reason why I’m here today, because I went through big ups and really really big downs, but those are what made me who I am today, and I’m really proud of it.
PS: After working with both the Save Water campaign and also your foundation, what are a few things you’ve learned that you’d like to pass down to Boomer?
MP: Obviously for water safety, you want to learn just to be comfortable in the water; that’s the main goal. I think the second that you start freaking out and feeling uncomfortable, it’s not going to go well. He’s in the water a lot. I just posted on his Instagram actually, before you got here, having pool time with him. So, he loves being in the water. He’s happy, splashing all over the place. If he swims, great, that’s his choice. If he doesn’t, I’m not going to push it. Also, just being able to teach the small things, like don’t leave the water running, turn off the faucet, the shower. . . . I’ve almost started saying “brush your teeth in the shower”; you’re knocking out two birds with one stone. There are so many little tricks that we use to try to conserve as much water as we can. I think those are some of the things that we’ll pass along to Boomer. We’ll probably learn more along the way as well.
“There are so many little tricks that we use to try to conserve as much water as we can. I think those are some of the things that we’ll pass along to Boomer.”
PS: Have you and your wife, Nicole, found yourselves especially surprised by anything as you tackle parenthood together?
MP: For me, I run out of patience here and there. You don’t really know what you’re doing. I ask Nicole, “What do I do?” and she’s like, “I don’t know.” I think it’s just going through the process together, doing things day by day that are going to help Boomer grow up into hopefully a very nice young man. It’s both of us. Every day is different and every day brings something more exciting, like being able to see his personality come out more and more. When I FaceTime him on the road he wants to grab it! He’s always licking the phone, so it’s all these little things that are just so special to see. He’s in the process of learning to walk; he’s taken a couple of steps already. I figure by the time I get home at the end of the week he’ll probably be walking.
PS: That’s so exciting!
MP: Yeah, it’s a big turn. I’ll just be running around the house chasing him all the time.
PS: What’s something that you like to do for father-son bonding time?
MP: It’s funny, when we were watching hockey, watching the NBA Finals, he’ll just come, sit, and pay attention to the TV. He’s really in tune to sports, which is fun. He’s really chill with me. He’s super, super chill. He’ll just lay back on the couch, hide underneath pillows. . . . He always has little tricks; he’s never sitting still. I’m not always home, and Nicole and Boomer don’t travel with me. I like to be able to chill with him and just relax. He has this little car he likes to ride around in. I push him around in this car. Anything that moves, he loves. He likes going fast. We just put him in the couple little cars that he has, and we just fly around the house.
PS: If he ever expressed interest in wanting to go down a similar path like you did, becoming a professional athlete, would that be something you’d encourage? Despite your ups and downs in the spotlight?
MP: I mean, growing up as a kid, my mom never really pushed me into doing something. It was kind of whatever I wanted to do, and that was what made me continue and have the longevity that I had in my career. I went through ups and downs in the pool when I loved it and when I hated it, so if he wants to be an athlete of some sort, great. If he doesn’t, OK. The more you push a kid, in my opinion, they go the other direction, so I won’t push him to do that. In a perfect world, I’d love him to be a really good golfer and have the chance to go to The Masters or something.
PS: Have you had him watch golf, too?
MP: He hasn’t really gotten into it yet. He has his little Fisher-Price golf set, but he basically just hits us with it. [laughs] He’s still learning, but hopefully he likes it, and I’ll just wait for the day when one day he gets into it, and he can beat me. It probably wouldn’t be that hard.
PS: Coming off of the Olympics last year, you’ve presumably had a break from intense training in the pool. Are you enjoying it? Or are you itching to get back out there?
MP: In the pool?
MP: No. No desire. I think it was a fun career, it was everything I dreamed of, and now it’s just turning the page to something else. I had so many goals in the pool, and the hardest thing has been walking around every day, being out of the water. It’s a weird transition, a challenging one at times. But I was able to be so successful because I had really really big goals and high expectations for myself. There are so many things that I still want to do. My foundation, growing my brand . . . the list is endless. I’m honestly busier now than I was when I was swimming. It’s kind of weird, but I feel like more of an adult because I have to do stuff every day. Whether it’s checking emails or making phone calls or doing this and that, it’s fun for me. It’s the start of a new chapter. At times, it is frustrating, but I know it’s not going to be easy to accomplish the goals that I want.
PS: Now that you don’t have to worry about competing, is there anything you can really enjoy that you didn’t have time to do when you were training?
MP: I’m pretty lazy. My wife always says, “you’re the laziest, most successful Olympian I’ve ever seen.” How does that make sense? [laughs] Honestly, if I have downtime, I’m really, really good at not doing anything. We’re excited to get back into Game of Thrones and a couple other shows that are coming up. We’ve been going to a lot of movies. It’s relaxing. We spent so much time on the road just traveling, so if we get a chance to go to dinner, see a movie, a friend or a nanny will watch Boomer and it’s the best. My wife left this morning, and last night we went out and celebrated our one-year anniversary, which was yesterday. Being able to go out, just have dinner, and kind of relax . . . we’ve known each other for 10 years this July, so being able to celebrate one year was really special.
PS: Watching TV and going out to dinner doesn’t sound so bad. Other than Game of Thrones, are you a big TV watcher?
MP: There are so many sick shows out there. I really loved Westworld. Westworld blew my mind; I was absolutely loving it. I’ve started listening to more books on tape, and the one book that I’ve listened to, over travel, probably four times in the last three months, has been The Power of Now. I’ve just been trying to think differently and really just trying to live in the moment. I’m trying to measure what time is, because time is so important in so many different ways. You can’t really measure time. I guess we have hours and days, but there’s so many other ways that we can measure time. I’ve been trying to challenge myself more outside of the pool, and I’m excited about moving forward. The next chapter of my life is going to be so enjoyable and so fun. There are going to be struggles, I’m going to have hard times, but I’m someone who never gives up until I get to my goal. The things that I have and the things that I’m doing, I have a lot of lofty goals and it’s going to take help from a lot of people I’ve surrounded myself with and just a lot of hard work.