On a sweltering summer’s day, Hilary Phelps sits inside Busboys and Poets enjoying an almond milk cappuccino and a skillet of sweet potato hash in her recently adopted neighborhood of Shirlington, VA. After a cataclysmic year, a bookstore cafe seems an apt setting for Phelps to reflect on this new chapter in her life—the one in which, after years of silence, she’s finally sharing her struggles with alcoholism, despite this being a time when her sobriety was truly tested.
“In 2022, I finalized my divorce, I moved, I launched a business, and my dad died,” says Phelps, mom to six-year-old Alexander. “By the end of the year, I had four of the top five life stressors. And after 15 years of sobriety, I wanted to drink badly—but I didn’t.”
Such outspokenness is something new for the 45-year-old Phelps, who is, of course, from that Phelps family—the oldest sister of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in the history of the sport and someone who has revealed his own mental health struggles, a fact that helped encourage Hilary to find her own voice.
Ever since she stopped drinking, sobriety has formed the backdrop to her life. Recovery is always there, like background noise, a constant reminder to stay the course. But for all the ongoing work it has taken her to stay sober, the secrecy surrounding her sobriety has only added to the burden.
“I worried, what if I share this truth and then people don’t like me? If I could help one person not feel alone, it would be worth it,” she says. “But it took me 15 years to get to that point of being able share that openly and to be okay with people not liking me.”
So last May, when Pete Sousa, her friend from their college days at the University of Richmond, asked her to appear on his podcast, The Payoff with Pete, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, Phelps, a public figure in her own right, knew it was time to talk about her experience. (When your brother is one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, you become a little famous yourself.)
On the day the podcast aired, the public-relations veteran dispatched an all-points-bulletin to her 48,000 friends and followers across social media—just in case anyone had missed her message. Along with a spare black-and-white portrait of herself, she posted: “In June 2007, I voluntarily walked into a treatment center and asked for help. I was scared, I felt alone, and I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t stop drinking. My inner light was burned out and I had lost every bit of who I was. It truly felt like a dark night of the soul.”
“I’m so proud of her,” says Phelps’ mother, Debbie, executive director for the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools. “She’s asked herself, ‘How can I grow from it? What can I do that people will take away?’ The more people who are in the spotlight saying, ‘I’m normal like everyone else,’ the better. There are a lot of people sharing the stories of their journeys about things that have been in the closet for a very long time—it’s healthy and it’s good for people to hear.”
And it’s been healthy for Phelps to share, too. With her perfect posture and sinewy strength, she radiates confidence and vitality. If you didn’t know that she battled severe addiction, you’d never guess it. But she’s worked a lifetime to get here.
Phelps was born on March 17, 1978, at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. “I was born on St. Patrick’s Day,” she says, smiling. “It’s fitting for an alcoholic—everyone wants to drink on your birthday.” At the time, the family was living in Whiteford in Harford County. Her sister, Whitney, two years her junior, was her best friend. “We caught crayfish, rode bikes, and played,” she says. “It was a free and fun childhood.”
She first learned to “swim” when she was six months old. With her father, Fred, in the pool, Debbie tossed her in the water, and she paddled to the surface. Seven years later, in 1985—the same year Michael was born—she joined a summer swim team in Jarrettsville. “I loved swimming,” she says. “I was gung-ho from the beginning.”
Before long, Phelps was bringing home respectable third-place trophies, but when she saw the larger first-place trophies other swimmers had earned, she wanted more. “My mom told me that the kids who win the big trophies were usually year-round swim- mers,” she recalls. Within a year of starting the summer swim league, she began swimming year-round with Renaissance All Sports Athletic Club in Bel Air, where she quickly set herself apart as a distance swimmer. As the fastest female on the team, she trained with older boys and was soon winning the tallest trophies.
While at a meet in Edgewater in 1987, Tom Himes, head coach for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, recruited the nine-year-old to train at the small, elite swim club based at Meadowbrook pool in Mt. Washington. (Also a talented swimmer, kid sister Whitney trained at the same time and later Michael trained there, too.)
By age 11, Phelps was swimming six days a week, three of which entailed waking up at 3:45 a.m. to make it to Meadowbrook to spend two hours in the water before the start of the school day, then heading back to the pool for several hours of swimming after school. By 1990, Phelps was a phenom, the fastest distance swimmer in the country for her age group. “I was tracking my time with Janet Evans, who was at the time at Stanford University and the fastest distance swimmer in the world,” says Phelps. “She was an Olympian—and I wanted to be her.”
Out of the water, she was equally driven. By sixth grade, she was a straight-A student at Southampton Middle School with her own sense of style, short, permed hair, and red Sally Jessy Raphael-style glasses—all of which made her a middle-school mark. “I had stretchy pants and lace-up ballet flats,” she says. To this day, her main memory is the taunting she endured from the popular girls.
“I can still see it,” she says. “These three girls are walking toward me, and they’re like, ‘Nice shoes.’ Later that day, I was flying to a meet in Atlanta, where they fly the top two from North Baltimore, but I felt sad. That was a turning point—I wasn’t good enough anymore.”
Seventh grade at Dumbarton Middle, prompted by the family’s move to Baltimore County, was no better. She had a friend or two but other than that, she says, “no one talked to me.” Vowing to fit in, she grew her hair long and ditched the glasses for contacts. By eighth grade she had moved up the middle school social ladder and was hanging out with the cool kids.
At 14, her substance abuse began with Milwaukee’s Best beer and smoking pot to quiet the insecurity and growing sadness and further fit in. “I remember thinking, ‘This will make me feel better,’” says Phelps, whose paternal grandparents were “problem drinkers,” though never outwardly identified as alcoholics.
In high school, she became increasingly dependent on alcohol, guzzling cheap wine and whatever else she could get her hands on. “I’d drink Wild Irish Rose,” she says, “because I was like, ‘Wine is fancy, and beer is disgusting.’ I’d stand outside a liquor store in Towson with a friend, and we’d call it, ‘Hey, Mister.’ We’d stand there with a $20 bill and say, ‘Hey, mister, can you buy us some Boone’s Farm?’ We’d split a bottle and stay at her parent’s house and steal their liquor, putting vodka in our Gatorade bottles.” Unsurprisingly, Phelps’ swimming career began to suffer. (In the meantime, Whitney’s star was rising, which only added to Phelps’ feelings of inadequacy. At age 14, Whitney was third in the world for the 200-meter butterfly.)
In 1996, by the time Phelps attended the University of Richmond on a full athletic scholarship, her addiction—sometimes that meant three bottles of wine a night—was in full force. “I blacked out every time I drank,” says Phelps, who experienced kidney pain and would find bruises on her body from falling the night before but had been so smashed she had no memory of it. “I never knew where I’d wake up or who I’d be with. College is an open invitation to party, and addiction can go undetected—it’s a breeding ground for drinking.”
While Phelps was alienating everyone around her—“alcohol was my best friend,” she says—others were starting to take note. In her senior year, her swimming coach punished her by making her the only one on the team of four without a captain’s title. And her friends staged an unsuccessful intervention. “I was like, ‘This is college, this is what you’re supposed to do.’”
Debbie knew that her daughter partied but had no idea she had a problem. “I didn’t think it was an issue, but a phase she was going through,” says Debbie, who calls her oldest daughter the “keystone” of the family.
After college graduation in 2000, Phelps’ disease continued to consume her. Her family traveled to Sydney to watch a 15-year-old Michael compete in his first Olympics, a fact that still lights up her face when she talks about it. But mixed with those good memories is one that still stings: She was prohibited from climbing across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the city’s number-one tourist attraction. “You have to take a Breathalyzer first,” says Phelps, “and I was too drunk from the night before to be able to go.”
At the next summer Olympics, this time Athens in 2004, she and Whitney were guests at an epic Sports Illustrated party on a cliff overlooking the Aegean.
“We climbed up on this stage and we were dancing, and they made us get down,” she says. “But the next day, this man was like, ‘You guys had a lot of fun last night, you must have been drunk,’ and I literally said, ‘I wasn’t that drunk. I remember everything that happened last night.’ That was my barometer—if I remembered, it meant I wasn’t that drunk.”
For the following two years, Phelps tried to limit her drinking and made several attempts to quit, but her abstinence never lasted long. “Because I didn’t want to give it up, I was doing everything I could to control it,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m only going to have one glass of wine tonight.’ I was lying in bed and my body and skin were burning. I was anxious and felt like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I went to the bathroom and drank a bottle of NyQuil that’s what this disease does to you.”
“AT SOME POINT, YOU EITHER CONTINUE TO DRINK AND BURY THE SHAME OR YOU ASK FOR HELP.”
Things went from bad to worse when Phelps began living in Adams Morgan on her own, roommate-free for the first time. Within the first 10 days, she went on a series of benders, including drinking two bottles of wine by herself at home, then heading to the nearby Holiday Inn, where she gulped six more glasses in 30 minutes just before closing. As she continued to spiral, she knew she needed help.
“At some point, you either continue to drink and bury the shame or you take that other fork in the road and ask for help,” she says. Her ex-boyfriend also sounded the alarm. “[After my move,] I don’t know if I had drunk-dialed him or texted him,” says Phelps, “but he called and said, ‘If you don’t get help, I’m going to tell your family just how bad this is.’”
On Monday, June 11, 2007, after a final round of binge drinking the prior weekend, the then-29-year-old checked herself in to Kolmac, an outpatient addiction treatment center in the East End neighborhood of D.C., just a few blocks from where she lived. In the days that followed, she had intensive outpatient therapy for eight weeks and attended daily, sometimes twice-daily, 12-step meetings and then continued her care for 18 more months, including weekly group therapy sessions.
At the same time, she worked full-time as an event planner at a nonprofit—and told no one about her recovery efforts. “I was living a double life,” says Phelps, who recalls wandering the aisles of a Target in Alexandria until midnight because she didn’t want to be alone with her thoughts. “I didn’t want to drink, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I went to Target.”
As she started to recover, the first few months were the most daunting. “All those feelings I had stuffed down for 15 years started making their way up and out,” she says. “I’d feel so good one day, then it would swing so drastically to the other side—when people get sober, they don’t know how to manage their emotions. That’s why we drank in the first place.”
It’s been far from easy, but Phelps has stayed fully committed to sobriety, while building a new life for herself in the wake of a devastating divorce. In the past year, she has launched her own public-relations agency, Hilary Phelps Creative, and is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher, addiction recovery coach, and motivational speaker. She leans on good friends whom she jokes are her “board of directors” and takes zero risks when it comes to drinking—even refraining from imbibing non-alcoholic drinks in restaurants (unless they come from a can), having once been served a gin and tonic by mistake. She still attends 12-step meetings, meditates daily, and has pursued alternate therapies—some traditional, like Reiki, and others a bit more unusual, like Kambo, aka “frog medicine,” which causes the participant to purge.
When her father unexpectedly died in his sleep last fall, her alcohol cravings returned with a vengeance. “I was like, ‘What I want to do is go to a bar, find a stranger, get super hammered, and spend the next week drunk and checked out,’” she admits.
Instead, two days after the funeral, she and her friend Charlie Engle, himself sober for 31 years, drove to Ashley Addiction Treatment center in Havre de Grace. “She hadn’t really been very in-touch with the rehab world since her early years of sobriety,” says Engle, who just happened to be headed to the treatment center where he works as a brand ambassador when Phelps called to say she needed support. “I ambushed her in a way. I said, ‘I need you to speak for 15 minutes and tell these 100 people who have less than 30 days of sobriety what it’s like to have 15 years.’ I was worried about her—and I knew it would be powerful for them and change her whole perspective.”
In that moment, Phelps took a deep breath and stepped up to the podium to give an impromptu speech to the crowd of recovering addicts. “‘After 15 years, I wanted to check out, but drinking isn’t going to bring back my dad and it’s not going to make me feel better, because then I’ll have to do [rehab] again,”’ she said, ‘“and there’s no guarantee that if I drink, I’ll come back. I might lose my child, total a car, lose every friend I’ve ever had, and die alone.’ Someone came up to me afterward and handed me a note and said, ‘I was going to leave treatment tomorrow, but your story was so fucking powerful—I’m going to stay.’ I still have that note on my refrigerator.”
Sharing her story has marked a crucial stage in her recovery. “I encouraged her to tell her story,” says Engle, who became an ultra-endurance athlete on his road to finding sobriety. “I told her, ‘You’re never going to live completely in the sober world until you fully share your story. The fact that you’ve gone to so much trouble to hide it and the amount of work it has taken to do that is not helping.’ Once she shared her story, her transformation was almost instantaneous—it was one of those crux moments.”
In addition to finding sobriety, Phelps has found her way back to herself.
“When I first went to rehab, they told us to go home, look at ourselves in the mirror, and say, ‘I love you’–and I couldn’t do it,” she says. “Now when I look in the mirror, I see freedom and peace and joy and happiness and strength. At 45, this is where my story starts. The past doesn’t define us, it’s just part of our story. With recovery and getting sober, I get a second chance at life, and I don’t want to fuck it up. We’re all healing from something, and sobriety is just the vehicle in which I share my story of survival and healing.”