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Michael Phelps has not shied away from discussing the mental health struggles he faced during and after his time as a world-class Olympic athlete.
Now the 23-time gold medalist is using his voice literally — as the narrator and executive producer of “The Weight of Gold,” a documentary premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. on HBO. The hour-long film features several high-profile athletes, such as snowboarder Shaun White, track star Lolo Jones, skier Bode Miller, speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno and figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold. They all echo Phelps in speaking up and challenging the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and their respective federations, to invest and encourage mental health counseling away from the pool, slopes, ice or track.
To Phelps, the shocking part isn’t that athletes have mental health problems. It’s that no one seemed to care much, if at all.
“We were all saying, ‘Nobody helps us’ and ‘We’re just products,’” Phelps said during a conference call Monday. “Our stories are similar, our thoughts are similar, and I think that’s probably the most fascinating thing for me. Because I thought every sport is so different, every individual would be so different, yet there’s 15 to 20 of us in the film that go completely against that statement.”
Adding an emotional layer to the documentary, filmmakers interviewed Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb in 2017, months before his death (an autopsy found prescription sleeping pills and alcohol in his system). Skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender, one of Holcomb’s best friends, describes finding him in his room. Earlier in the film, directed by Brett Rapkin, Uhlaender explains how traveling the world for competitions with her team prevented her from returning to her dying father, despite her requests to leave.
“I don’t think I ever got over that,” Uhlaender says.
“It breaks my heart because there’s so many people who care so much about our physical well-being, but I never saw caring about our mental well-being,” Phelps, who is close with Uhlaender, said. “We’re products until we’ve stopped competing, and until we are stopped being treated like we’re products, we’re not going to change the equation.”
Phelps used the imagery of an assembly line to describe athletes; Gold says “conveyor belt.” As Ohno said in the film, “it’s gold, and then what?”
Bahati VanPelt, USOPC chief of athletes services, told USA TODAY Sports the 13-member mental health task force — comprised of professionals, thought leaders and athletes — has met…