The world’s most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, has made a surprise appearance at the 2018 World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas, Nevada. The WSOP is, of course, the biggest collection of poker tournaments on the planet, with a host of different variants played over the course of dozens of tournaments. The six-week-long event is known to attract celebrities and sports stars who enjoy the thrill and challenge of competing with professional poker players and amateurs alike.

Michael Phelps
(CC BY-SA 2.0) by Gage Skidmore

With 23 Olympic gold medals to his name spanning a glittering 16-year career in swimming, Phelps has always been someone that enjoys overcoming the odds. In 2017, Phelps made an appearance at the WSOP Main Event, joining over 7,000 players from all over the world who were competing to try and win poker’s biggest prize. Last year, Phelps entered with the sole ambition of making the money and donating all of his winnings to his very own Michael Phelps Foundation, which focuses on promoting the benefits of swimming as a sport and as a means of living a healthier lifestyle.

This year, Phelps entered the $3,000 entry six-handed No Limit Hold’em tournament, listed as Event #28 on the WSOP 2018 roster. In addition to the classics, Texas Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha, the schedule also features lesser played games such as Limit 2-7 Lowball Triple Draw, Mixed Omaha Hi-Lo 8, and even Razz. Classics such as 5 Card Draw aren’t seen outside the Dealer’s Choice events, and usually have to make do with their popular place on casino gaming floors and online sites in the form of both video poker and regular game. Phelps’ appearance did not go unnoticed amongst the poker fraternity, with the likes of “Poker Brat” Phil Hellmuth commenting on the Olympian’s presence at the Rio Hotel and Casino. Some 868 entrants showed up for the 6-max tournament, but neither Hellmuth nor Phelps managed to make much of an impact in the event.

In 2013, Phelps made his debut at the WSOP, having gained confidence playing tournaments on the Strip, and making a final table in the 2008 Caesars Palace Classic. Longtime poker pals such as Antonio Esfandiari and Jeff Gross talked Phelps into signing up for a $5,000 No Limit Hold’em tournament and he has been hooked on the WSOP ever since.

Phelps determined to win his personal battles

Since officially calling time on his swimming career for a second time in 2016, poker has become a much-needed escape for Phelps. Earlier this year, Phelps opened up about his personal battles with ADHD as part of the Child Mind Institute’s latest “Speak Up for Kids” campaign. He noted that one of his former school teachers had rammed home to him that he would never amount to anything professionally. Phelps admitted that he was “someone who was constantly bouncing off the walls” and could “never sit still” as a youngster – but he has since found coping mechanisms to curb his disorder.

Mental health and disabilities now affect one-in-five children throughout America and campaigns such as the latest one from the Child Mind Institute are a beacon to remove the stigma surrounding these conditions. Other celebrities such as Lena Dunham, Jesse Eisenberg, and Emma Stone all joined Phelps in voicing their own personal struggles with mental health, designed to help children and parents know they aren’t alone.

Phelps also admitted that he had fallen into a “major state of depression” following the comedown of his 2012 Olympic Games success, winning four gold medals and two silver medals following a gruelling training schedule. He admitted that the intensity of his profession had left him not “wanting to be in the sport anymore”. Nevertheless, he made a stunning comeback to the sport in 2014 and easily secured a spot on the U.S. team again at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. A further five gold medals and a silver in the 100m butterfly were enough for Phelps to get the closure he wanted from the sport, retiring at the end of 2016 as one of the greatest Olympians of all time.

Since his second retirement from swimming, Phelps has dedicated his time, fame and support towards a string of philanthropic causes designed to promote and advocate mental health. He is a non-executive director of Medibio, which is industry-leading technology designed to help address the challenges associated with the identification and treatment of many mental health conditions. As a champion of helping people to better understand and discuss personal stress and anxiety, there could be no better figurehead than someone who is openly winning his own personal battles and won his professional tussles in the pool far more often than not.

Clearly, poker serves as an excellent competitive outlet for Phelps. While many of us enjoy the game and play in the hopes of winning money, poker obviously provides a number of other benefits to the world-renown athlete. Let’s hope 2018 is not the last time we see Phelps in Sin City at the WSOP.

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