Michael Phelps got in my head. And now he's stuck there.

Imagine you just bought a case of bottled water. Would you idly open and pour 10 or 15 bottles down the drain? Of course not. That would be wasteful. That would be stupid.

But for years that is exactly what I did: I left the faucet on when I brushed my teeth. There was no specific reason. Like many things in life, that's just what I did -- even though I had heard the statistics, like how in the U.S. alone we can save hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year if we all turn off the faucet while we brush our teeth. 

That's a huge number -- yet like with many statistics that show the impact of an aggregate change, I didn't feel a personal connection. 

But the idea of dumping brand-new bottles of water down the drain? I could definitely connect with that image.

Now, turning off the water while I brush my teeth is just what I do. So yeah: Michael Phelps got in my head. 

And for good reason. 

The United Nations estimates that close to half of the world's population will live in countries with limited water supplies by the year 2030. That's why this is Michael's second year as global ambassador for Colgate's #EveryDropCounts campaign. 

Studies show that nearly 75 percent of Americans who were aware of Colgate's campaign say it influenced their personal actions in terms of saving water, and almost 60 percent say they turn off the faucet more often when brushing their teeth.

Each time you turn off the faucet you can save between 2 and 4 gallons of water, which is between 15 and 30 bottled waters... and if we all do, well over 500 million gallons of water a day.

Which, even though math is not my friend, adds up to over 31 million plastic bottles of water.

I talked with Michael about why life after swimming and why he's so involved in water conservation -- and also about motivation, achieving huge goals, and his struggles with anxiety and depression.

There are tons of things you could have gotten involved in, and with your profile, tons of organizations that would welcome your involvement. So why water conservation?

I've approached my whole career exactly the way I do now: The things I'm a part of are things I believe in, that we already do in our daily lives.

So when Colgate asked me to be a global ambassador for water conservation, to help spread a message we already care about... it was a no brainer. Water obviously plays a significant role in my life, but this is something my wife and I were already trying to teach our son. Boomer understands that when the Colgate sticker on the stopper turns red it's time to turn the faucet off. And someday Beckett will, too.

As a parent, to know that your kids can be taught that lesson at such an early age, and that it will make such a significant impact worldwide... that's incredible to watch.

It's a powerful campaign, one I'm honored to be a part of.

You come from a where results are measurable... when you drew the analogy of wasting bottles of water, that really struck a nerve with me.

Stats and numbers make a huge difference, especially when they're relatable. When you can show people not just the total potential change but also how they can make a real difference... that's when they'll jump onboard. 

But it's also really powerful to know just how big an impact we can make if we all come together. 

Most of us take water for granted. We turn on the faucet and it's there. But that's not the case for hundreds of millions of people around the world.  There is no "never ending supply" of water. In this country we could potentially not have clean water within our lifetime. 

That's a scary thought. Water is at the center of everything. 

Our pipes froze for a day last winter and you would have thought the world was coming to an end.

(Laughs.) Exactly. 

The other day someone said, "When I brush my teeth, I think about you." While that's a strange thing to hear (laughs), it shows we're making a difference. People are listening. They understand what we're trying to do. And they're buying into it.

Saving water is something we can all easily do -- without any effort at all -- every single day.  

I asked LinkedIn users to send me questions they would love to ask you. Here's one: Many people worry that dedicating themselves to achieving a huge goal means they will miss out on other things. Do you feel all the sacrifices you made were worth it? Would you go back and change anything?

That's an awesome question. The short answer is no, I wouldn't change a thing.

I did miss some high school dances and parties, I did lose the chance to hang out with people... but I didn't care, because I knew I had the opportunity to do something no one else had ever done. That made me willing to make those sacrifices.

If you really do want to do something significant, you're going to have to make sacrifices. You have to. That's just part of it.

So I wouldn't change anything: Not the good, not the bad, not the ugly. All those experiences helped mold me into who I am... and for the last two years, for the first time in my life I like who I am as a person. 

It's hard to imagine that winning 28 Olympic medals wouldn't make you happy.

For the longest time I looked at myself strictly as a swimmer and not as a human being.

But still: I wouldn't change anything because I am so happy with my life today.

Was it hard and grueling and brutal? Yes. But if you look at the most successful people, they do things when they don't necessarily want to do them.

That's what makes you great: Doing things when you don't want to do them... because you know that is what it takes to get you to where you want to go.

What motivated you more: Winning, or losing?

That's easy. Losing. (Laughs.)

I definitely remember the losses because those were times I wasn't as prepared as I thought I could have been. Losses were wakeup calls that I needed to get my butt in gear, and focus on what I needed to do to win a gold medal, break a record, etc.

I'm really hard on myself. I tend to beat myself up. But if I'm devoting time and energy to something, I want to do it right.

I'm won't do something if I'm not willing to put in time and effort to do it as well as I possibly can.

Lots of parents on LinkedIn asked for your advice for helping a teenager who suffers from anxiety or depression.

Even though every kid is different, and every kid will need something different, it all starts with being there to support them.

One thing I always say is make sure the communication line is always open. When someone goes into isolation that's a huge red flag, and should definitely set off alarms.

Another tool is something we implemented in our Foundation over the last year. There are 8 basic emotions. Whenever you're feeling one, dig deeper into why you feel that way and what caused that feeling. That can help you address the underlying problem instead of just dwelling with that emotion.

I have used that technique for years, and still use it today.

I sometimes do that without thinking. If I'm feeling stressed, I'll think, "Okay, why exactly do I feel this way?" That lets me deal with the causal factor instead of just trying to "reduce my anxiety level."

Me too. I try to take a step back and think, for example, about why I am getting so angry about this situation, this person, etc. It's a really good tool, one you can use 

Really good tool that anyone can use.

It also helps when you remember not to take things so personally. If I'm driving and someone cuts me off, I'll get mad and think, "What is his problem..." but what just happened really doesn't matter. It doesn't need to affect me at all.

I'm learning to pause, to take that deep breath, and realize that it's okay. It's not the end of the world.

I use those tools and I'm still trying to sharpen them up.

One thing that's obvious is you don't mind talking about your own anxiety, stress, depression...

When I openly talk about these things it's really helpful: I learn more about myself and about what I'm doing to change. 

On a broader level, I think it's great that athletes and celebrities -- and kids -- are opening up more about mental health, because it's something we need to address. There are all these stigmas... people assume that if you're an athlete you're incredibly strong mentally as well... but I'm a human being too. I struggle with the same things.

It's cool when athletes show the world that they're not superhuman, that they' not unbeatable. They're human.

It also helps when kids open up about their struggles, because that helps other kids realize they're not the only ones.

That's why we produced the documentary "Angst." It shows how kids in middle school and high school deal with depression and anxiety. While it has been shown in a number of schools across the country, we're hoping to make that happen in every single school because it is so important for kids to see other kids open up and talk about their struggles -- to show that it's okay.

To show that it's okay to not be okay.

I've had scary times and depressed times since the Olympics, and for me those are a part of life. Those times are part of who I am. I have to accept that, and be as prepared as I can when those times happen so I can keep learning and keep taking small steps forward. 

Speaking of small steps forward. What have you learned about yourself in the process?

If we're talking about mental health, I joke about it because I know it sounds really basic, but the biggest thing I've learned is to communicate. (Laughs.)

I was great at compartmentalizing. To finally learn to let out some things out was like a huge release. To be my open, honest, authentic self... that took me a long time to find.

It's an incredible feeling to know you're being yourself and being authentic in everything you do. When you have that... that's the equation for success. Nothing will stand in your way because your mind is so powerful.

What got you to that point?

The key is to understand that it is okay to not be okay -- and you're not alone. You're not by yourself. People are willing to help.

It's hard to ask for help, but it's really important to ask for help when you need it.

I struggled with that. I was afraid of rejection, was afraid of how it would feel if people couldn't or wouldn't help me. I couldn't handle that answer.

Now I can. Now I realize there are plenty of people that will not only help you -- they genuinely want to see you succeed. 

But was there a specific moment...?

The tipping point for me was after my second DUI.  I felt I didn't want to be on this earth anymore. I didn't want to be alive.

That was the time I knew I had to make a change. I had to be ready to make that change. 

And that caused me to be vulnerable. "Vulnerable" is a scary word. But going through that change saved my life.

And it changed my life. I know now that I'm I'm still going to get depressed. I'm still going to go through periods of high anxiety. But I understand that is part of who I am. And now, I'm comfortable in my own skin.

Depression isn't something you have once and then it goes away forever. Depression can come back, and as long as you're as prepared as you can be you, you can work through it and keep taking steps forward. You can keep making progress.

Trust me. I've seen it. I've lived it.

I'm eager to move forward, to grow, to learn from the experiences I've had and that I'm sure I will have... 

That's why it's actually exciting to talk about this part of my journey -- because I know that if I keep working, keep growing, keep learning... my life can be even better than it already is.

Published on: Sep 20, 2018
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