Debbie Phelps is the quintessential Olympic mother: Her support for her 14-time medalist son, swimmer Michael Phelps, is clear at every competition. This summer, Debbie is preparing to watch her son compete in another Olympics — most likely for the last time.
With her final Games on the horizon, Debbie fondly remembers the first ones she attended with Michael. Her advice for mothers going to watch their children compete for the first time is the same as for mothers with young kids just starting out in sports — don’t push.
“Children have to do what they enjoy,” Debbie told TODAY.com. “You have to let your kids find what’s best for them and what their own niche is.”
Though Debbie was an athlete herself (volleyball, basketball and high jump), she never pressured her children to follow in her sports footsteps. In fact, when 11-year-old Michael started to swim at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club with coach Bob Bowman, Debbie recalls Bowman coming to speak with her and Michael’s father about their son’s swimming future. Bowman laid out a plan for Michael’s swimming career all the way up to 2012, and Debbie started to laugh.
Bowman asked what was the matter and Debbie was blunt. “I told him, ‘If [Michael] doesn’t enjoy it, this isn’t going to happen!”
If refraining from pushing is the first step toward supporting your child, the second, according to Debbie, is listening. If your child isn’t having a good time, don’t force it.
Debbie remembers a time when even the amazing Michael Phelps no longer wanted to be a swimmer and was hesitant to continue. When he was entering high school, all his friends began getting physicals to play school sports, and Michael started to feel left out. That’s when he told his mother he wanted to switch to golf!
“I sat him down and we took a look at his swimming and where it could take him,” Debbie recalls. “You have to let them decide what to do. It’s about educating them about the opportunities that can open up.” As you can guess, Michael stayed with swimming.
Education is the third element on Debbie's list for supporting a child with sports potential. Even learning how to handle their own luggage can be valuable: “I never packed their bags, I never carried bags. It was about them learning to be responsible, and part of their education.”
It was a lesson Michael learned the hard way. Once when he was at a competition at age 14, he reached for his goggles and realized he didn’t have them. When he looked over at his mom, she just lifted her empty hands. “There was nothing I could do about it! He hasn’t forgotten his goggles since,” she laughed.
Debbie, a middle school principal, is passionate about educating kids about the dangers of drinking and driving. As a spokesperson for The Century Council, she tries to bring this message to kids and encourage parents to talk about the issue with their children.
Like any other mom watching her child compete in a sport, Debbie is excited to be heading to another Games. She still tears up at the thought of Michael receiving his medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the moment the cameras didn’t capture: when Michael went up to his family, medal in hand, and said “Look what I did!”
“It was like a dream,” Debbie recalled tearfully. “I was so proud.”
But the whole experience of attending an Olympics is incredible, according to Debbie. “Everyone is there supporting their kids, wanting them to win, and for a little while, there’s peace. Watching your child compete is very rewarding.”
So is Michael really done competing in the Olympics after London? When Matt Lauer asked Debbie if there was any chance of her son changing his mind about competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she answered with a firm no. “He will not swim there. No, no that’s final,” Debbie said, later confirming the decision to TODAY.com.
But what about Debbie and Michael attending as spectators? She isn't sure. “It’s four years away, who know what will happen by then? Maybe he’ll be playing golf!”
Yet even if she never attends another Olympics after this one, Debbie believes there are still ways those of us at home can support our athletes. “Remember them,” she insists. “Don’t forget these athletes. They only make an appearance every four years, and when the torch is put to rest, it’s easy to forget. People remember football, baseball, and those athletes because their sports are seasonal.
“Remember the hard work these athletes are doing for the Olympics.”
TODAY.com producer Lisa Granshaw is glad her parents didn't push when she decided to hang up her fencing sword, stop competing, and become a journalist. The pen is mightier than the sword anyway, right?