While her staff thought about next Fall, Ms. Phelps reflected on her revealing new book, the Beijing Olympics, raising an Olympian, and that photo of her son Michael smoking pot. “Is he human? Yes, he’s human,” she says, in reference to the incident. “Some people think he has these super-human powers, but he’s a human being.”
Debbie Phelps will be hosting a book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City this Saturday, May 9th, at 2 p.m. You can also read an excerpt of the book here.
ES: When you think back on the Olympics last year, what moments really stand out to you?
DP: To watch Michael go into Beijing and execute the racing platform that he and Bob [Bowman, Michael’s coach] worked for together for so long, to be able to go to another country and live in that culture, among that people, it’s so rewarding and uplifting in itself. I remember walking through Olympic village in Beijing and looking at the architecture and listening to the people. One of the most rewarding things is going to the Olympic Games and having the world around you, everyone is at peace, everyone is in unity, everybody is one. You look to your right, you look to your left, front and back and you hear the world around you. You hear Russian, you hear Italian, you hear Spanish, and they’re all there for one thing, watching their country perform at the highest level. But you know, every race had a story, every race had a special moment in it and a special reflection as my daughter and I sat there in the stands watching Michael do what he has loved to do since he was a little guy.
ES: One of the moments that meant a lot to people back home was, after each race, when he would bring you the bouquet.
DP: Yeah. Every time he goes into a competition and I’m there, he comes to see me after a race, whether it’s in Indianapolis or another part of the world. I remember after the 200 Free [in Beijing], him talking to Peter Vanderkaay, saying “I don’t know where my mom is. I can’t find my mom.” I read his lips on the Jumbotron. It was very, very special. Often in competition, he gives me the first one, if Hillary or Whitney are they, they get the second and third, and then I tell him to throw it into the stands, make a fan really happy and give them the excitement that we get.
ES: But he didn’t do that this time. You got them all.
DP: No he didn’t. Yeah, we did get them all. I think every race was a moment in history, being able to write that history book, as to what he was able to do. Every race had to be executed almost with perfection and to watch him do that, day after day, night after night, it was just very rewarding for me as his mom.
ES: Growing up with him, was there a moment when you realized how great his potential was?
DP: When Michael was little, I had people in the stands say to me “He’s gonna be something someday, you wait Ms. Phelps.” Did I really realized it? No, because I was juggling three kids, one in college, one in high school, one in middle school. They were all going different directions, they all had different responsibilities. I was working, I was getting my masters. We were just rolling through. I would go from baseball diamonds to lacrosse fields to swimming pools.
ES: How have things changed in your daily life since the Olympics?
DP: Well, I’m trying to run a staff meeting while doing an interview, for one thing. It’s just trying to fit things together. Our family, in general, people want to invite us to different events. Saturday, I was in Annapolis, speaking at a children’s fair, then doing a book-signing, then yesterday we were the host family at a run in Washington for brain research, so our lives are much more demanding. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to go out and meet new people and speak on behalf of some loves and passions that I have. I believe very strongly in children. I speak on ADHD, with Michael’s ADHD issue. Just being able to go and help people, I think people need to do that more. I’ve had people tell me that after the Olympic games, it all just came at the right time. Michael’s performance, their showcasing of our family—we had no idea that was happening. We’re sitting at a venue in the stands and we don’t see cameras. It wasn’t until somebody e-mailed us or text-messaged us and they’d say “Saw you on TV,” “We’re so happy for you,” or “We’re so proud of you.” We’ve definitely become a lot more high-profile as possible, but keeping ourselves as normal as possible. I get up every morning and I go to work. I love my job and I work very hard at my job. It’s being able to balance all the things that I do on weekends to get a voice out.
ES: Obviously Michael has been under intense scrutiny since the Olympics, which has led to some high-profile negative incidents. Has it been difficult for you to watch him endure the scrutiny?
DP: Are you a dad?
DP: And how would you feel if that was your son or daughter?
ES: I think it would be difficult.
DP: I feel the very same way. It’s not easy being a parent, but we’re a parent through good times and bad times. We’re a parent through rough spots or smooth spots. I have the same voice with all my kids, it just so happens Michael’s face gets all over world. It’s just that continuous love, guidance, and support that we give our children. My response to this is, Is he human? Yes, he’s human. Some people think he has these super-human powers, but he’s a human being. And I don’t care who you look at, whether it’s myself or you or Michael or a high-profile celebrity in Hollywood, we all have obstacles in our way. As a parent, what I do when an obstacle gets in the way of my own children or my children here at school, it’s where do we go from here? What do we do next? Do we accept that obstacle or do we move forward? And that’s the voice that many parents around the world, just like myself, bring to our home, bring to our dining room table, bring to my school house here. You can be a champion when everything’s going well, but what happens when something goes wrong? How do you get through that? What have you learned from it? It hasn’t been easy for any of us. It’s hard, when you get thrown a curveball.
ES: In the book, when you talk about that photograph that came out, you talk about how you were proud of Michael and the way he dealt with that. Was that a result of the way you raised him?
DP: Absolutely. You know, my mom died after Athens and it was very difficult, and my father died when I was going into my sophomore year of college. As I go from day-to-day and I make decisions and solve problems, I say to my kids and my closest friends, “Oh my God, I am my mother. I am so my mom.” I grew up in a very loving, caring home in western Maryland, in a very small town, everyone knew everyone’s business. My mom’s profession was raising her children. There were seven years between three of us. She took great pride in being a parent. She guided us. She taught me how to be a lady, how to have a strong work ethic, how to be determined, as my father was out there day-in, day-out being a contractor. And on Sundays, I’d watch football with him because I was a little tomboy. Those things I brought from the way I was raised into my own home with my children now. As I watch my daughter Whitney, I watch the values she brings into her home with her husband and my two grandchildren. It’s very rewarding to see that.
ES: How often do you talk to your kids these days?
DP: We’re emailing or texting every day, but actually meeting face-to-face or telephone calls, I would say Michael every 5 to 7 days—listening to his voice, that’s not texting because texting drives me insane. Hillary, my eldest, we talk almost every day, and Whitney, in communication verbally, I would say every 3 to 5 days.
ES: All of us in Baltimore are proud that Michael is coming back is going to make a home here, but you must be especially happy about that.
DP: You know, we’ve been involved in swimming for 20 years, that’s a long time to be in one sport and at the same swim club, so having Michael come back on the same pool deck that he ran around on as a little seven-year-old? Oh my gosh. And having my two daughters involved in the club, and as we launch Michael’s foundation, and looking at his swim schools, the business that he is looking forward to, it’s so rewarding to see your child—young man and young ladies—come back and do business where they grew up. I was at Meadowbrook a couple weeks ago and I’m standing there looking at this pool, thinking, “wow,” every one of my children swam in this pool. And now Bob and Michael—Bob’s the CEO of North Baltimore Aquatic Club—are back in training where he grew up. And I know this summer, the grandchildren are going to be at that pool too. There’s a lot of history in North Baltimore, in Meadowbrook. I’m just so happy to have he and Bob back. Even though Ann Arbor was great, Michigan was great—“Go Blue” and all that, it’s nice have everyone back home. It’s so much easier, if you want to do Sunday brunch or something like that, it’s very enlightening for me.
ES: What are your thoughts on Michael and 2012?
DP: I don’t know what Michael’s goals are for 2012. He called me and he said “We’re going four more years. Are you with me?” And I said “Absolutely.” A mother is always with her son or daughter, whatever next adventure or journey they want to go down and grab a hold of. I look forward to watching what Bob and Michael are able to put together, to be able to see exactly what Michael will be swimming. I love watching him swim 400 IM, I think he could take that time down some more. Who knows if he’s going to swim that. I know it’s going to be shorter distance, since he’s so old. That’s, like, so funny.