Debbie Phelps Chats About Highs and Lows as Mom of an Olympic Legend

Filed under: Sports

Debbie Phelps with her Olympian son Michael and her daughters Hilary and Whitney. Credit: Laisee Rintel

ParentDish recently caught up with Debbie Phelps, mother of gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps, to chat about parenting at poolside. Her daughters Hilary and Whitney also were elite swimmers.

In her book, "A Mother for All Seasons," Debbie, a middle school principal near Baltimore, opens up about her life. In a recent interview with ParentDish, she spoke about happy and challenging times. An edited version of the conversation follows.

ParentDish: What goals did you have for your children when they started swimming?
Debbie Phelps: I just wanted them to enjoy what they were doing. I wanted them to succeed. I wanted to set the bar high for them, so they would continuously strive.

PD: In your book, you write about "excesses" of swim parents. What were you referring to?
DP: I've had parents say to me, "My child has this many trophies and ribbons but they want to stop swimming." The parent doesn't want them to stop. If Michael didn't love the sport, would he have been able to execute the performance he did in 2008? I'm not a coach. But as a parent, I don't think so.

PD: What advice would you give to parents hoping their child will make the Olympics, even be the next Michael Phelps?
DP: This is just Debbie talking. But my goal was never for Michael to be an Olympian. That was never even a thought in my head. That was Michael's goal.

P: In your book, you write about your own children having setbacks in swimming. One example is Whitney's struggles with injuries and an eating disorder.
DP: I never had two children in the same pool. I had three different athletes going three different places every night. I wasn't the one seeing Whitney in a suit all the time. I'd pick her up from practice. They [girls on the team] had on their flannel bottoms and hoodies. So I didn't detect that eating disorder. Shame on me as a mother. Whitney's goal was to make the 1996 Olympic team [a goal she fell short of]. She was going to do everything she could to become faster. Instead, it was a detriment to her health and performance.

PD: After the high points at the 2008 Olympics, Michael has had some low ones, too. Some parents reading this probably will be wondering: Was Debbie angry with Michael last February? [when a photo surfaced of Michael smoking from a marijuana pipe].
DP: Disappointed, but not angry. When I speak to groups, the first question I ask is: Has anyone here ever made a mistake? Because there isn't anyone on the face of the earth who has never made one. It just so happens some people's mistakes get broadcast through the media while others do not. We all do things that are foolish. But they are life lessons. That's how we grow.

ParentDish sports reporter Mark Hyman is the author of "Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids" (Beacon Press).

Have a suggestion for an article on youth sports? Contact Mark at
pdyouthsports@aol.com.

Related: Kearney Wins Gold, Ohno Scores Silver - Olympic Weekend Highlights


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