Without entering a competition, Debbie Phelps has become one of the stars of the Beijing Olympic Games: Her animated cheering for her son Michael as he chases Olympic history has made her a favorite among TV viewers. But Debbie says she is far from a stage mom — she maintains a hands-off policy as her swimming son seeks to become the first athlete to ever claim eight medals at an individual Olympics.
“This is his office; that’s how I look at Michael’s pool,” Debbie told co-host Matt Lauer during an exclusive appearance on TODAY. “He’s going to work, and his work is performing at his highest level.”
While Michael’s contact with his parents and his big sisters Hilary and Whitney is limited to phone calls and text messages during the Olympics, watching 19-year-old Michael tear through the competition in Beijing is a combination of ecstasy and racked nerves for his cheering family. Phelps, who just missed tying Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals when he claimed six golds at the 2004 Games in Athens, is on mark to walk away from Beijing as the most decorated Olympian ever.
Baltimore native Phelps has already claimed Beijing gold in the 200-meter freestyle, the 400 IM and the 4 x 100 freestyle relay — the last of which tied him with the likes of Spitz and Carl Lewis among the handful of Olympians to win nine career gold. And though the laid-back-and-then-some Phelps seems impervious to the pressure cooker he’s immersed in, Hilary admits the family feels it for him.
“Before he swims, you can wring your hands and rock back and forth, even though there’s nothing we can do about it,” Hilary, 26, told Lauer while seated next to her mother and sister. “There’s nothing we can do to help him, but your heart really races. We are more nervous this time then we were in Athens, but it never ceases to be exciting.”
Sister Whitney, 24, believes the pressure for Michael to win eight golds in Beijing is unfair to the athlete — despite the hopes of a nation that is cheering him on.
“Michael never has really come out and said that he wants to get eight gold medals,” Whitney Video: Phelps reveals a hidden talent pointed out. “He wants to come in and do the best that he can do, and he wants to bring swimming to a whole other platform. He just wants to have a good time and do his best.”
Debbie Phelps agreed with her daughter, saying she and her daughters put the thought of Michael’s making history in Beijing “on the side.”
“We take every race and we celebrate that — we’re relieved when it’s over, but we can look forward to the next phase.”
Lauer suggested that the experience must be especially gratifying for Debbie — given the years of “early morning workouts, car pooling and bake sales.”
At that Debbie Phelps burst into laughter, shaking her head. “I don’t do bake sales!”
TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira noted that Debbie has become a star in her own right at these Olympics “because so many moms relate to her and have responded to the way she reacts to her son’s great success.”
But Debbie says that the family is reveling in the Olympics experience. “It’s like a roller coaster, we just keep going up and down,” she said.
“Our downtime, we go shopping. Our uptime, we go to the pool.”
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