American swimmer Michael Phelps says the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) should do more to help Olympians transitioning into retirement, saying they are all too often “brushed aside” as the focus shifts to the next generation of talent.
The retired 33-year-old, who won a record 23 Olympic gold medals across five Games, said elite athletes need assistance navigating the tricky period that follows their Olympic careers, when depression can set in.
While the USOC offers career and educational services via its Athlete Career and Education program Phelps, who has spoken openly about his own struggles with depression, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday he was frustrated to see athletes forgotten about so quickly.
“There is so much more that the USOC can do and they don’t do,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s been much help for when an athlete retires and takes that next step.
“That’s something that’s frustrating for me to see because it is such an honour to represent our country and to wear the stars and stripes.
“But at times when we’re done it’s kind of like we’re just moved along or brushed aside because there’s somebody else that’s coming up.
“To me that needs to change,” he said.
Phelps said an upcoming documentary he participated in called “The Weight of Gold” will examine the issue of Olympians and mental health.
The movie grew out of an interview veteran sports filmmaker Brett Rapkin did with U.S. Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb last year about depression.
Days later Holcomb was found dead in his room at the USOC Training Center with high quantities of alcohol and sleeping pills in his system.
Phelps said he was encouraged by the change in leadership at the USOC, where in July Sarah Hirshland was named CEO after Scott Blackmun stepped down from the position earlier in the year.
Susanne Lyons was named the USOC Board Chair earlier this month, marking the first time two women have held the organisation’s top two positions.
“I’m excited to see change,” Phelps said.
“I’m excited to potentially see strides made to give these athletes the support that they deserve both on and off the field of play.
“As somebody who has been on the national team for over 15 years, I hope that the athletes are able to enjoy the experience even better than we did.”
Phelps, who said he had no intention of making a return to the pool for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, is also hoping to make a difference in conservation efforts via his “Save Water” campaign with toothpaste company Colgate.
He said the two-year-old effort is catching on and that globally it could lead to a potential reduction of 50 billion gallons in wasted water per year.
“I will go down swinging trying to make a change in the mental health field and with water conservation by spreading those messages,” he added.
“These are things that have frustrated me for a long time and I’m ready to stand up and make the change since I’m not competing anymore.”