Pastor Rick Warren has heard his share of inspiring stories about people reading “The Purpose Driven Life.”
That comes with the territory when you write a book that sells about 40 million copies and gets translated into 85 languages. But the leader of Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, Calif., was surprised when he watched the ESPN feature “The Evolution of Michael Phelps” and learned that his book played a major role in helping the superstar recover from a personal collapse that left him considering suicide.
“I haven’t met Michael Phelps yet,” said Warren in an interview. “A mutual friend gave me his cell, but I thought the last thing he needed was for me to bother him during the Olympics. …
“The key is that he was honest and he did a turnaround. … Wherever he is in his journey, I’d love to hear about it. You start where he is.”
Phelps was brutally candid with ESPN about his frame of mind in September of 2014, after his second DUI. He thought this was his “third strike” in life.
“I was a train wreck. I was just like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth,” said Phelps. “There were times when I didn’t want to be here. … I just felt lost. Where do I go from here? What do I do now?”
The crisis came after the most decorated Olympian in modern history ended his hasty 18-month retirement after a weak, by his standards, showing in London in 2012. After the arrest, Phelps hid in his bedroom for five days. “I didn’t eat. I didn’t really sleep. I just figured that the best thing to do was end my life,” he said.
Phelps ended up at The Meadows treatment center, near Phoenix. A Baltimore friend and mentor — future NFL hall of famer Ray Lewis, an outspoken Christian — sent him off to rehab with a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life.”
“I think that when you find you’re at the lowest point in your life … you’re kind of open to a lot of things to try to change, to try to get back on the right path. I was just surrendering,” said Phelps, who once identified himself in a social-media profile as “Christian-other.” Warren’s book, he added, helped him learn “there is a power greater than myself, and there’s a purpose for me on this planet.”
Phelps kept calling Lewis as he worked through the book’s day-by-day format. Other patients started calling Phelps “Preacher Mike,” when he shared quotes.
On Day 1, he faced Warren’s famous opening: “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.”
Cue this manifesto from the book: “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. … Contrary to what many popular books, movies, and seminars will tell you, you won’t discover your life’s meaning by looking within yourself. You have probably tried that already.”
More: “God’s purpose is far greater than your problem and your pain. God has a plan behind your pain. … We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”
For Warren, the key to this story is that Phelps confronted the fact that he could not heal his own wounds, starting with his childhood in a broken home. Phelps was attempting the impossible. Thus, his demons kept winning, even as his Olympic triumphs made him a global celebrity.
Nevertheless, a Sports Illustrated Rio 2016 cover story claimed that Phelps “had desperately corrected his own life at 29.”
If Phelps was reading “The Purpose Driven Life,” said Warren, then saying that he “corrected his own life” is the exact opposite of what happened.
“Someone like Michael Phelps is Exhibit A demonstrating that, no matter how successful you are, you can’t look inside and find your own purpose in life,” said Warren.
“The bottom line: You didn’t invent yourself. If something is broken, you’re going to need to talk to the Inventor or read the Owner’s Manual. … It’s safe to say that Michael Phelps didn’t fix himself.”