CHICAGO — Michael Phelps has big plans for the pool.
No, that doesn’t mean what you think. Despite enjoying “messing around” with his Instagram posts, the most decorated Olympian of all time is happily retired and plans to stay that way. Because what he’s doing now is far bigger than anything he’s already done.
“If I can save a child’s life or save a human being’s life, I think that’s a lot more powerful than me coming back and swimming one more Olympics for our country,” Phelps told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday morning before appearing at a pool safety event as part of his partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club and Special Olympics.
“As hard as it is to say I won’t have the chance to stand on the medal podium with a medal around my neck, listening to the national anthem, because I love representing my country, I think what we’re doing, what I’m doing now, is way more powerful than that.”
Those are not empty words, given that his 23 gold medals are more than the total won, in all colors, by the second most-decorated Olympian. But he is a different man than he was 2½ years ago, finding peace within himself through rehab, marriage and fatherhood, and how he views his legacy reflects that.
Once shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight, he wholeheartedly embraces being an advocate, for water safety, anti-doping and mental health. Not simply because they’re issues near and dear to his own life, either, but because he knows how wide an impact they have and that his name will give them added weight.
Take his appearance Saturday for the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Pool Safely” program.
Phelps got his start in the pool because his mom, Debbie, put him and his sisters in water safety lessons. He can’t imagine not being comfortable around a pool or water, and he and wife Nicole have already started their 1-year-old, Boomer, in lessons.
But he knows that isn’t the case for every child. Though the number of children under the age of 5 who die by drowning has dropped 17% since “Pool Safely” began seven years ago, there are still 350 children who drown each year.
Another 6,000 will wind up in the emergency room because of water-related injuries.
“When you hear a stat that drowning for children under the age of 14 is the second-highest cause of death, that says to me that something needs to be done,” Phelps said.
“Through June last year in Arizona, we had 10 kids who drowned. Just through June,” he added. “I remember leaving for trials, and there were 10 kids who had drowned. If that doesn’t raise a question, I’m not sure what does.”
By joining “Pool Safely.” Phelps knows it will put a spotlight on the campaign. The Michael Phelps Foundation also has partnered with the Boys & Girls Club and Special Olympics on the im program since 2010, teaching more than 16,000 kids how to swim.
The im program has expanded from six Boys & Girls clubs to 46, and Special Olympics now uses it in 35 different countries on six continents.
But that’s just a fraction of the work that needs to be done.
“It’s OK to be greedy in wanting more,” Phelps said, smiling. “And wanting more and more and more.”
Watching Phelps give swim lessons to first a group of kids and then Special Olympians, it’s clear he’s in his element. Despite only getting a few hours of sleep the night before thanks to a restless Boomer, he smiles and laughs throughout the 90-minute clinic.
He jokes with the kids as they work on blowing bubbles and perfecting their strokes. He beats fellow Olympians Allison Schmitt and Grant Hackett in a relay race. (To be fair, the rest of his team did give him a head start.) He is, Phelps will say later, in his comfort zone.
As she watches him talk to kids about water safety, his mom said advocacy has become his comfort zone, too.
“The thing with Michael is, he was so focused on his competition and his performance,” Debbie Phelps said. “I really don’t feel his personality was able to shine through.”
Phelps acknowledges that he didn’t really let it, burying his emotions and compartmentalizing his life to the point of self-destruction. A DUI arrest in 2014 and the trip to rehab that followed forced him to confront his feelings, and he realized that shutting people out had only caused him harm.
“I have the opportunity to, hopefully, help a lot of people and that’s just really through what I’ve gone through in my life. If I can share my story even more in-depth to help somebody else, maybe save their life, that’s what I’m interested in doing,” Phelps said.
“There are other people in the world who go through the exact same things that I go through, and maybe they don’t want to talk about it. Or maybe they’re embarrassed to talk about it,” he said. “For me, it’s a part of my life and it’s made me who I am today. I wake up every day and, nine times out of 10, I’m in a really good mood because I’m happy with who I am and where my life is taking me. Everything that I’m doing now is just things that are passions of mine and, one day, I hope to be able to make a bigger impact than I have.
“Look, I will never downplay the accomplishments that I had. And for me finally being able to realize a little bit of what I did (at the Olympics), it’s so much smaller than to be able to save a child’s life in the water or to help that person not take that next step into something they could never turn back from.”
Phelps has won many big races in his career. None compares, though, to his place in the human race.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
PHOTOS: Michael Phelps through the years