Plus, the former swimmer talks about how his diet has changed since he retired from the Olympics.
Michael Phelps knows a little something about eating: At the height of his swimming career, he was consuming as many 8,000 to 10,000 calories every single day (the average person eats around 2,500 calories daily). Of course, he was training to be an Olympic athlete—and little did he know at the time, arguably the greatest Olympian in modern history. Phelps holds a total of 23 gold medals, the most of any Olympic athlete.
“The challenge was to keep weight on,” he tells Food & Wine. “For so long, eating really became a job.”
From his senior year of high school to his sophomore year of college (the swimmer entered his first Olympics in 2000, at the age of 15), Phelps says he was swimming 70 to 100 miles in the pool every week, and “constantly just trying to cram food into my body.” Every night before bed, he would eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Phelps competed in five Olympic games before retiring in 2016 (he had retired once before, in 2012, but decided to make a comeback for the 2016 Summer Olympics). By then, food and eating had become about ease and simplicity. He often times didn’t leave the pool until 2:30 in the morning after training.
“I tended to eat a lot of pasta, chicken and pizza at night because it's super easy,” he recalls. “Plus, we had access to the USA House, where a chef at the training center cooks healthier food, and they would sometimes drop off meals like salad or a sandwich or fruit.”
Phelps says his situation was similar to most Team USA athletes, who are looking for “super easy,” meals that are “quick to get into our system,” after hours of training.
“We have to eat something within 30 minutes, to replenish what we lost,” he explains.
There’s no shortage of food in the Olympic Village for the food-starved, hard-working athletes that live there during game’s ten-day run. The cafeteria is, according to Phelps, the size of two football fields and contains “anything and everything you can think about,” in terms of food (he specifically recalls the chicken, fish, beef, and rice dishes). There was also a fast food restaurant in the Olympic Village in years past, but this is the first year there will be no fast food presence at the Olympics, to encourage athletes and audiences to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Still, Phelps often found himself getting bored of his meals during the games.
“You’re eating the same thing every day for ten days,” he says. “By the end, I was wanting something like a cheeseburger. When I checked out of the village on the very last night, I went to meet my wife and family, and they asked me if they could order me food. I said, ‘Just the biggest cheeseburger and fries you can find. That’s all my body is craving right now.’”
Phelps says that for most Olympic athletes, a fast food cheeseburger is always a “celebratory” meal, something you eat because “you want to let loose.” That’s not to say Phelps didn’t have his indulgences, though: He would often keep gummy bears with him to snack on. Beef jerky, like the brand Krave, which he partnered with ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, is another go-to for Phelps.
Despite the myriad of meal options available to Olympians, Phelps doesn't look back on those days with nostalgia. When I asked him if he would miss the expansive cafeteria at the Olympic Village, I got a resounding and decisive “no.”
“It was part of what we had to do. It was part of the routine,” he explains. “I’ve gotten the question a lot, ‘Are you going to come back?’ No. ‘Could you come back?’ Yeah, but I don’t want to.”
These days, Phelps eats a solid—and a much more normal—three meals a day, often through his partnership with Blue Apron, which delivers meal kits to his home every Thursday. After his son, Boomer, goes to sleep, Phelps says that he and his wife Nicole cook together.
“Having that time to make meals together and to enjoy that process in the kitchen, it’s a good family activity,” he says.
Phelps—who is close friends with both Lindsey Vonn and Shawn White—will be avidly watching the games this year. He’s strictly an audience member these days, though. Don’t expect to see Phelps back in the pool, at least on a professional level.
“I’ll truly miss that team chemistry and being able to wear the stars and stripes,” he says. “[But] I don’t see myself at a swim meet again.”
Update 2/9/18: A previous version of this article stated that Phelps partnered with Krave in 2018. He partnered with Krave in 2016.