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The Untold Story of a Champion
By Bob Schaller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Bob Schaller
All rights reserved.
Raised by a Single Mom and Two Amazing Sisters
While Michael Phelps was worrying about the things most nine-year-old boys do — what sports he should play, how come he had so much homework — the Phelps as a family had moved into a nice home in the Baltimore suburb of Harford County.
However, when his parents, Fred, a state trooper, and mother, Debbie, at the time a home economics teacher, divorced, the kids and their mother moved to a townhouse in Rodgers Forge, a middle-class suburb of Baltimore.
His oldest sister, Hilary, was only a couple years from heading off to college. The middle child, Whitney, was closer to Michael in age, so she spent a lot of time with her little brother, especially as their mother worried about running a household, building her own career — she was headed for a job in administration before becoming a middle-school principal — and taking care of getting her active kids to all their sporting events.
Michael's Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder was, thanks to his mother, diagnosed at a young age.
"He was always full of energy. He'd talk constantly, and ask questions nonstop. He also had trouble focusing in school, and his teachers said they couldn't get him to interact during learning time. He was always pushing, nudging, shoving, and fidgeting. It was hard for him to listen unless it was something that really captivated his attention," Debbie Phelps told Good Housekeeping magazine. "Michael's doctor prescribed a stimulant medication. He only took it Monday through Friday, though — no weekends, no vacations, no holidays. I knew he'd benefit from the medication at school."
Whitney said she was aware of Michael's attention deficit condition.
"I know growing up when he was diagnosed, he was on medication," Whitney said. "He was a young boy that had tons of energy. I think our whole family might have a touch of it. I can't sit still and watch a movie, I can't just focus on one thing, and Michael was that way. I never really thought anything of it. A lot of kids have that."
The disorder, or illness, affected Michael mostly in school, though Whitney could see how it affected him at home when he had to sit for long periods, whether he was doing homework or even just watching a program on television, especially if he had little interest in it.
"Maybe it slowed him down in the classroom because sitting there, people with ADHD have a hard time sitting through a half-hour, forty-five-minute, or fifty-minute class," Whitney said. "Or even to watch a whole TV show from start to finish — it is hard to concentrate for that long. Once out of the school setting, though, sports really helped him because of the focus — he played lacrosse and baseball when he was younger, and when he'd do that or swimming it did not affect him."
Hilary said Michael was quite an athlete in every sport he attempted.
"Michael was awesome at playing all sports," Hilary said. "He was fast on his feet and had a lot of energy, so he could cover that lacrosse field like no other. Michael liked to win, so he always gave it his best. I think it would be hard to win every game if you played a team sport like baseball or lacrosse, but Michael still likes to win, and in the sport of swimming, he can give it his all, to make sure that he wins."
Michael agreed that it was a problem in school.
"I couldn't sit still, I couldn't focus," Michael told The Sun newspaper of London.
But he didn't appreciate it when, in middle school, a teacher criticized him and told him his future was limited.
"One of my teachers at middle school — I can't remember his name — said I would never be successful," Michael told the Sun. "When someone says that, I'm going to work even harder to prove him wrong. It was a dream come true to achieve something no one has done before."
Debbie realized her son needed help focusing, and was not willing to let him use his ADHD as a crutch.
"Kids need structure. Kids need consistency," Debbie told The Associated Press. "I don't care if they have ADHD or not, they have to have those parameters in order to be successful."
His mother said she and Michael's sisters, along with swimming, helped him manage his condition.
"Our family became a team, and the girls paid attention to Michael's eating habits," Debbie said on Everyday Health's Web site. "We also observed time restrictions on some activities to teach him time management, and he began making choices so that he could use his time more wisely, just as he would at the pool. Michael has a mental toughness. He's very intense, but he never used to be able to focus. But even at ages nine and ten, at swim meets he would be focused for four hours — even though he'd only be swimming himself for three to four minutes — because swimming is his passion."
Hilary said their mom had not just the right career and education, but also the right temperament to help Michael deal with his ADHD.
"She has a lot of patience and worked really hard with all of us to instill solid values. I was away at college, but would hear about the things that she would do with Michael — help him with visualization exercises to help calm him if he was full of energy. She knew different ways to engage him in activities, as well as ways to help him focus."
Swimming was one of the keys in helping Michael deal with it.
"Getting in the water helped me focus and stay on track and I grew out of it," Michael said.
Whereas lacrosse and baseball are played on fields and are team sports, there is an occasional lull for certain players, especially in baseball.
"Swimming helped even more" with the ADHD, Whitney said, "because you have a pool that you stay inside, you can't run around all over the place, so it gave you certain boundaries and brought a certain focus."
Michael was also a victim of bullying, especially at school.
"There were days when I was on the school bus and had my baseball hat thrown out of the window," Michael told the Sun. "It's funny because the people who did that are now trying to come back and be friends, and it's like, 'No.'"
Debbie said the bullying developed a sense of grounding in Michael that later helped him deal with fame.
"... Growing up, he had to deal with a lot of teasing and tormenting from other kids his age," his mother told Good Housekeeping magazine. "He was so tall and elongated that his hands were below his knees. He had a hard time going through that, but I think overcoming it helped him become the grounded person he is today."
Hilary said Michael did endure bullying, and that it was an eye-opener to the family that kids treated her brother that way.
"That was pretty tough," Hilary said. "Kids can be cruel and really mean. I think it's helped Michael take things with a grain of salt. When there are things written about him, he uses them for motivation. He's able to turn things that happen into a learning experience and grow from them."
While the bullying made school less enjoyable for Michael, he did like spending time with his sisters and their friends.
"There is a significant age difference with me and Michael, and when I was in high school, he was in elementary school," Hilary said. "Michael always wanted to be where the action was, which sometimes meant hanging out with me and my girlfriends. At the time, I wanted him to leave us alone, because he always had so much energy. But he's always been very thoughtful and kind."
Hilary was starting college at the University of Richmond at about the time Michael started to get national attention as a swimmer at age eleven. But Whitney said the time in the townhouse drew the close quartet even closer as a family.
"Hilary was in college, but when she would come home, we'd switch around, and decide who would be sleeping on the couch or who would be sleeping together," Whitney said. "I left for college — I went to UNLV — shortly after that. For a long time after that, it was just my brother and my mom. When we were all together at the house, it was crazy with all the different schedules. When we did all get together it was hilarious, because from all of us being swimmers and [with] training, we'd just get in a slap-happy mode, and we'd end up laughing on the floor."
Whitney said once her father left, the family used the experience to draw together even more.
"We have a very close family and love each other unconditionally," Whitney said. "No matter what, we can come back to the circle, we know that, and one of us will always be there for the other. That has shaped us into the people we are today."
One of the benefits for whomever Michael ends up marrying is that he knows how to act and behave around women after living with three of them.
"He definitely did go through training at a young age on how to be around girls, from the three of us," Whitney said.
Being closer in age to Michael left Whitney with a lot of time to spend with her relatively shy, although sometimes precocious, brother.
"Michael and I are five years apart, so we're a lot closer in age," Whitney said. "There's seven years between Michael and Hilary. Seven years is a big span, so when she got into high school, Michael and I spent a lot of time together because our focus was swimming. In our younger years, I remember going rollerblading and playing hoops with him and teaching him how to mow the grass."
Whitney never minded the extra time with Michael because, especially when she got into high school, she realized and appreciated even more how much their mother gave to them and sacrificed to be able to provide for them.
"I took him under my wing, because my mom being a single parent took a lot — she was a teacher, so in the summers she took summer jobs to make ends meet," Whitney said. "A lot of times, Michael and I would bum around together, going to the pool or hanging around the house. He would often go off and play with friends or play video games. During those times and for school, I'd make him breakfast, get him on the bus — just caring for him. Certainly there were times when he was obnoxious and annoying, not always perfect, but I'm sure he'd say the same about me."
Whitney, who said she believes everyone in the family has ADHD to varying degrees, though not as severely as Michael, said she too prefers to be busy.
"I think if I didn't have those things (family and work), I would not know what to do with myself," she said. "I do better in a chaotic setting. The more responsibilities I have, the better I am."
While Michael and his mother were always very close, Debbie Phelps is also close to her daughters.
"She's incredibly strong, and a wonderful woman," Hilary said. "She has always instilled in her children, just like her mother did with her, that everyone is equal — no one person is better than another, and you treat all with the same kindness that you would treat a friend. We are all humble and giving, and that comes from Mom. She taught us how to make decisions, and also to live with the consequences of our decisions. She would, and still does, talk through options with us, weighing the outcomes and consequences, until we come to a decision that we think is best. I'm sure it was hard for her when we made decisions that didn't match up with what she thought, but she let us make them and live with the results. But she was always there to talk through issues or concerns that stemmed from the decision."
With three children — all of whom were in sports — Whitney appreciates the time their mother took to make sure the children never suffered from being in a single-parent household.
"She's an amazing woman," Whitney said. "She had three young kids, raised them on her own, and remember, we all three swam, at different levels. So that meant different practice times, caps, goggles, swimsuits and travel meets. We were a busy bunch. Then we started driving, so there were cars and gas and insurance. Kids take a lot of time — she gave up a lot of herself for us."CHAPTER 2
The Family That Swims Together: The Push to 2000 for the Phelps Siblings
Whitney had her own disorder to overcome.
Back pain started for Whitney when she was just a ten-year-old age-group swimmer. By age twelve, according to a Swimming World Magazine article from November 2005, the pain was so bad that she could not always practice, and two years later, she was in pain every single day. She was still able to win Nationals in the 200 butterfly, which would become one of her brother's signature events and the first in which he'd make the Olympic team in 2000. She had a herniated disc and two bulging discs in her back.
Whitney won a bronze medal in Rome at the World Championships. Unable to train as vigorously, she thought losing weight would help her.
"I thought if I could be thinner," she told Swimming World, "I could be more fit — and everything would be okay."
She did lose some weight, and, coincidentally or not, she was able to train more, and became a compulsive exerciser and stopped eating certain things altogether.
By the 1995 Pan-Pacific Championships in Atlanta, the city that would host the 1996 Summer Olympics, a team manager talked to Debbie Phelps, who said she had already taken Whitney to a nutritionist, according to Swimming World. Others were noticing how thin Whitney had become. Her coach, Murray Stephens of North Baltimore Aquatic Club, also talked to her, and would even stand nearby and watch to make sure Whitney ate a bagel and cream cheese before he would let her practice.
Whitney still managed to be seeded first in the 200 butterfly for the U.S. at the time of the 1996 Olympic Trials, and was ranked third in the world. Though she made the finals, she finished sixth, not making the top two spots, which earned berths on the Olympic team.
She continued to lose weight, and finally ended up seeking help to deal with the disorder.
Stephens, who took charge of NBAC in 2008 and had not a decade earlier hired Bob Bowman and the other coaches who have continued NBAC's strong tradition, took the lessons he learned from Whitney in 1996 to heart. He made sure the coaches, swimmers, and their parents knew about the need to eat properly, and to be on the lookout for any swimmer, particularly girls, who were not getting enough nutrition or suddenly lost a lot of weight.
Like Michael and Whitney, Hilary swam for North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Whereas Whitney swam for UNLV in college, Hilary earned a scholarship to the University of Richmond in nearby Virginia.
"I swam for NBAC for close to ten years before heading off to college," Hilary said. "I swam for the University of Richmond, which is a Division I school, all four years. I had a few school records, but they are long gone. There have been girls who came through after I graduated that were really fast. Like Michael and Whitney, I swam the 200 butterfly, but I mostly swam distance. Breaststroke was my least favorite, but I liked swimming distance."
Before the Olympics Trials, Michael Phelps had an injury of his own to deal with. His case was documented in an article on USA Swimming's Web site. Like many great swimmers before him, he had shoulder pain that prevented him from swimming with the correct form.
The Phelpses were referred to a respected local physical therapist, Scott Heinlein, by former Olympian Anita Nall. Heinlein, in a subsequent interview, noted that Michael also had some lower back pain. Michael was just fourteen years old at the time and had grown six inches during the previous year. While the actual pain was a concern, even more so was the instability that Heinlein wrote was an underlying problem. The injury was treated with two treatment sessions, called "manipulations," and within a week Phelps was better.
Excerpted from Michael Phelps by Bob Schaller. Copyright © 2008 Bob Schaller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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