Michael Phelps’ Mom on How to Raise an Olympian

The GOAT’s mom is asked constantly for the secret to success. Her answer? Parents parent, coaches coach, and swimmers swim.

We saw Debbie Phelps during all of Michael’s Olympic appearances: along with Michael’s sisters, and in with Rio his wife and son Boomer, up in the stands, watching nervously in the way that only parents watch: with white knuckles, screams and tears.

She was there the first time he broke a world record in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2001. Naturally, she was ringside for the triumph in Beijing. She was there for Michael’s “so-so” performance in London, and of course, the swan song at the Olympic Games in 2016.

Debbie Phelps raised the winningest Olympian in the history of the Games, along with his two sisters, as a single mother in Maryland. Michael, the youngest, quickly took up swimming at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club where his sisters trained. It was there that his partnership with his life-long coach Bob Bowman would form.

From very early on roles were established between coach, parent and swimmer.

During an interview before the Beijing Olympics, where Michael would make history winning eight gold medals (including that epic 4×100 free relay), Mama Phelps had this to say about the roles that parents, coaches and swimmers play respectively in the development of a swim career:

“To me, there’s a very fine line between the athlete, coach and parent. Everyone has their roles. If you sat here right now and told me you’d give me $200 million to recite Michael’s world fly record, I could not tell you that. Yet there are parents whose child is trying to beat my son who can spit those things out. I don’t get involved in that. I talk to Michael as a parent.”

For a moment you can imagine how many times Mama Phelps has been approached by the parents of young swimmers, eager for validation, all hoping that she has the secret to producing the greatest swimmer the planet has ever seen.

What did she do?

At what age did Michael specialize?

When did you know that he could ‘make it’?

Debbie’s advice?

Relax. Enjoy the process and don’t burden your child with more pressure, stress and expectations on top of the ones they are already carrying.

Although your kiddo may have posters of famous swimmers on their walls, the biggest role model in their life is still you.

The way that they deal with stress and anxiety is going to mirror how you handle stress and anxiety:

“Parents just need to chill. Realize that it doesn’t help to set expectations, especially unrealistic ones. Put yourself in their shoes. Do you map things out so carefully in your own life? Such as, ‘I am going to be CEO of a company’? Does it fall out in nice little pockets? Same with kids. Their progression is not going to fall into nice little pockets. There may not be another Michael Phelps for decades, even though I have parents tell me their son is on the same track.” 

See More Stuff Like This:

The Best Advice I’ve Ever Heard a Swim Parent Give Their Kid. Hear is some of the best words of encouragement I’ve heard a swim parent give their little chlorinated athlete that hits all the right notes.

How to Be an Awesome Swim Parent. The swim parent lifestyle is a challenging one. Here is how to juggle wanting the best for your kid by encouraging them to take accountability and ownership of their swimming.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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