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Q&A with Olympic Mom Debbie Phelps

Splash News

Debbie Phelps’ son, swimmer Michael Phelps, is the most decorated swimmer ever, and could become the top Olympian of all time at the upcoming London games. So how did this school principal and single mom of three raise such an extraordinary son—and how does she feel about his swimming career coming to an end? Phelps took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about the London games, her emotional reactions on TV, and Ask, Listen, Learn, the Century Council’s new program to get parents and kids talking about underage drinking.

So how did you get involved with the Ask, Listen, Learn Program?

I feel as a middle school principal and educator for almost four decades I’m always looking for ways to be able to bring information to middle school-age children and parents. I was very honored to be able to speak on this program’s behalf, which focuses on healthy lifestyles as well as underage drinking. Very often parents tend to, after elementary school, start pulling away from their children’s education, but middle school-age children need the influence, support and voice of their parents, and need to be able to understand underage drinking is not acceptable.

You believe middle school is the right time to start that conversation?

Oh, absolutely. Middle school kids are formulating who they are, and it’s a hard time. They want to be liked, they want to have their own personality, and they don’t know who their friends are. They’re very impressionable.

How did you start the conversation with your own kids?

We talked a lot around the dinner table, and we talked a lot before and after swim practice. At one point, we went an hour each way in the car, so I tried to build conversations into that time. And often, our carpools had other kids as well, so it was not a parent making all the conversation; it gave them experiences from other children as well.

How did you manage to raise three kids as a single mom and work as a school principal?

We were a team. My two daughters are two years apart, my daughter and Michael are five years apart, and we all relied on each other. I had three kids at three different pools with three different practice times, and then at one point in my life, I just had to go back to college to get my degree. But I like to keep things hopping; it gives you excitement in your life. I’ve got a great group of friends around me, and we all supported each other.

Michael is an inspiration for people who have been diagnosed with ADHD. What advice would you give to a parent who’s just gotten that diagnosis?

I always tell the parents of my children at school that it’s a three-prong approach. There’s the family, there’s the school, and there’s the medical profession. And I feel that you have to rely on all three of you working together on what’s best for your child. And I also think another component is teaching kids how to use strategies that are going to prevent them from being hyperactive or impulsive—count to 10 or push your index finger into your palm—and to help them de-escalate themselves.

What strategies worked with Michael?

We had to keep him structured. As long as he was on a schedule, he was great. We also used a task chart, where you had to get all these things accomplished before you were able to do other things. I always made sure that when he got home from school that he got something to eat and that he went outside for a certain amount of time to be able to relieve some of that energy before he did his homework and before he went to swim practice.

Was there ever a point when Michael wanted to quit swimming? How do you know when to push them to keep going and when to just let them walk away?

At the Beijing finale, Michael had hesitations coming back. And you know what? I couldn’t make up his mind for him. I just didn’t want, if he didn’t go back, to be sorry for what he could have done or what he wanted to do. But I had to keep my mouth closed, to a certain degree. Because it wasn’t my decision, it was his decision.

Thinking back to the Beijing Olympics, what was the highlight of it for you?

It would be very difficult to pick one highlight out of the 2008 games. Every swim had a magical component to it. But watching the President of the United States across the pool as Michael swam the 400 IM, watching him wave the flag, watching him make eye contact with my child—that was very special.

You are so fun to watch, because you have such fantastic emotional reactions in the stands. What’s going through your head in those moments?

I’m thinking, Wow. It’s this incredible sense of your child meeting his goals, the pride that you have in your country for something that your child was able to do representing the United States of America.

How do you think you’re going to feel when you see him swim professionally for the last time?

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster as I sit in the stands with my daughter or friends of Michael’s, and we reminisce about what’s happened in the pool.  Every pool has a story for our family. So to watch this chapter close, I’ll just wait for the next one to open.