In the fall of 2014, the winningest athlete in Olympic history didn’t want to be…
Olympic Athletes Ready for Rio After Conquering Addictions
“I was wondering in people’s experience, do addicts ever get better???” writes a woman on a “Sober Recovery” message board who calls herself the codependent of an addict. On “MD Junction” is a similar query: “Does it ever get better? Addiction is destroying everything.”
To anyone who may be asking themselves those same questions, the stunning rebound of some athletes headed to the Rio Olympics proves that not only can addiction be overcome, but it can be beaten so fully into submission that national heroes can emerge.
Dan Smith: Addiction ‘Destroyed Everything’
It’s a comeback fairytale for Australia’s Dan Smith, a junior swimming star who at age 14 racked up so many national championships that he was deemed the next Ian Thorpe, a five-time Olympic gold medal winner and Australia’s most decorated athlete. But within four years, Smith, who said he took his swimming talent for granted, turned away from the sport and began a life of crime and alcohol and drug abuse that left him homeless, lost and broken. He traces his drug use to being spoiled and “ungrateful,” having “never appreciated anything” in his life, he told the Courier Mail
After five years of addiction, Smith entered treatment in 2013 and emerged with a renewed passion for the sport and will make his Olympic debut in Rio.
“I actually realized I needed to get help and I went to rehab and got help,” Smith, now 25, said. “From there, my whole life changed.”
The swimmer says he hopes his story will inspire others who find themselves dependent on alcohol or other drugs to ask for help. “They too can get over addiction and move forward with their lives,” he said.
Michael Phelps: ‘I Wanted to Die’
The most decorated Olympian of all time will also be back in the pool this summer, looking to add to his 22-medal collection. Michael Phelps’ descent into substance abuse is surely no secret to anyone. In 2009, a British tabloid splashed a photo across its front page of Phelps smoking from a marijuana pipe. That same year, the athlete was arrested for drunken driving. In 2014, he was arrested again for the same charge and this time not only lost his driver’s license, but was slapped with a six-month suspension from USA Swimming for violating the organization’s code of conduct.
But the Phelps of 2016, a man who at the height of his alcohol use said he “wanted to die,” is making a resurgence thanks to his decision to check into a comprehensive inpatient alcohol treatment facility. A few days into his stay, the now 30-year-old said he began to view rehab as a contest, another one he was determined to win.
“I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach,” the swimmer said of his 45-day stay in late 2014. “One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being,” Phelps told Sports Illustrated.
He’s now alcohol-free, he says, and in the best shape since he won eight gold medals in 2008. Phelps is predicted to win as many as five golds in Rio.
Nick Willis: Porn Will Not Love You Back
New Zealand national hero Nick Willis will be competing in his fourth Olympic Games in Rio, but it will be the first time the track star will perform without carrying with him the shame of a long-time addiction to pornography.
Willis in March revealed his compulsive pornography use in a Facebook post and says all of the attention he’s received is worth it if it helps one person in their own battle.
“Pornography will not and cannot love you back,” Willis wrote.
“I am 2.5 years porn free (and it feels AMAZING). Since I was a teenager, it had been a rollercoaster ride of shame and justification as I was on and off with this addiction. Not until I realized the true implications this had on my marriage and ability to father could I finally break free.”
When people hear the word addiction, they typically think of substances like alcohol, cocaine or prescription painkillers. However, pornography viewing, gambling and eating, as well as a host of other behaviors, can also morph into compulsions. When the user continues to engage in an activity despite the harm it is causing at work, at school, with their finances or in relationships with family and friends, they are considered to have a behavioral or “process” addiction.
Willis told the New Zealand Herald that his addiction began when he was a lonely teenager looking for an escape.
“I was exposed to magazines and videos at a young age and the objectification of the women on these media forms became an outlet for me to gain some form of intimacy that I severely lacked.”
Willis credits his wife, Sierra, for helping him beat his illness and is now using his celebrity to highlight the plight of women and girls being exploited by the porn industry.
The stories of these elite athletes are indeed proof that things do get better, extraordinarily better, even when it seems addiction has destroyed everything. Anyone can make a comeback of Olympic proportions in their own life. If you or someone you love is struggling with a behavioral addiction or substance abuse, don’t wait until it seems like life is no longer worth living before reaching out for help.