Friendship, Culture, Mission, Life, Leadership

What Michael Phelps Teaches Us About Evangelization

I am amazed by Michael Phelps. The merman that can swim faster than most fish has struck gold again this Olympics, taking home five more gold medals. With 28 medals total, he is the most decorated Olympian of all time. 

Let that number sink in: 28 medals. It makes me tired just thinking about it. A person with this level of success no doubt has a plethora of things to teach us and inspire us about dedication, hard work, focus and discipline. With Michael Phelps, I think the greatest lesson he can teach us rests in the need to be evangelists. 

You may have seen the story circulating online about Phelps’ rock-bottom moment when he was suspended from swimming and eventually checked himself into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. (Philip Kosloski did a great job discussing this is his article here.) 

Before this drama began to unfold in 2009 – 2014, Phelps had already achieved fame and broke the Olympic record by taking eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. You would think any athlete would rejoice in winning ONE gold medal, much less setting the Olympic record with eight. 

But even after cementing his Olympic “divinity” in 2012, Phelps took a huge downturn. Here is a segment from an ESPN article

Phelps’ issues centered largely on his complicated relationships with two of the most influential men in his life — the one who had been there for him and the one who pretty much hadn’t. Phelps’ parents divorced when he was 9, and he’d long felt abandoned by his father, Fred. The pool was his escape, and Bowman was a surrogate father of sorts. In the water, he pushed him to perform. Outside the water, he taught him how to drive and knot a tie.

Eventually, Phelps realized that all the Olympic medals in the world couldn’t ease his pain — and instead made life more complicated. By 2014, he was approaching 30, lost, with no identity beyond that of a champion swimmer. He self-medicated and wondered whether his was a life worth living…“I had no self-esteem. No self-worth. I thought the world would just be better off without me. I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life.” 

Thankfully, so it seems, Phelps has found his faith again and has started to turn his life around (I am excited to see him making progress and hope he continues on the journey to intimacy with Christ). He even became an evangelist himself: In rehab, Phelps read a book by Rick Warren, “The Purpose Driven Life.” This book helped turn Phelps around — and after reading it, he was so inspired and excited that he started sharing it with other patients. They nicknamed him “Preacher Mike.”

I wanted to reflect on a few things we can all learn from Phelps’ experience: 

  1. No matter who we are and what we accomplish, nothing can replace God in our life. As believers, we have to believe this at our core. Everyone needs the Lord in their life to find fulfillment. God alone. 
  2. We need to be brave. We need to find courage in knowing the true place of God in our lives and never shy away from helping someone know the Lord, even if that someone is a Michael Phelps. (I mean, even Michael Phelps did this in rehab!) It can be easy for us to be timid about our faith and doubt that what we have to offer — namely, a relationship with Jesus Christ — is really that big of a deal. It is a big deal. He is a big deal: He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. 
  3. So many people are hurting, even if we can’t see it. Sharing our faith and being a witness to joy will leave an impact, even when we least expect it. We may never see the impact or hear about it, but we should never doubt the possibility.

Thank you, Michael Phelps, for teaching us why evangelization is so important. Thank you for sharing your story. Now we can ask ourselves: Who is the Michael Phelps in our lives?