23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, 31, will be carrying the Olympic Torch in Rio on Friday, August 5. In this year’s games, the star athlete will have the opportunity to become the first male swimmer to win four consecutive gold medals in the same event. On August 9, he became the oldest male Olympic gold medalist in an individual event.
Phelps’ relationship with his mother is often at the forefront of the public eye, while much about the relationship he holds with his father, Michael “Fred” Phelps, has been somewhat of mystery.
After being pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2014, Phelps willingly checked himself into rehab. Later, he spoke with NBC’s Matt Lauer and opened up about his relationship with his father. He told Lauer he had feelings of abandonment and avoidance towards his father, but said their relationship strengthened after rehab.
Phelps’ mother, Deborah “Debbie” Phelps, has been quite public about her relationship with Phelps. She has sat down for interviews and even wrote a book, A Mother For All Seasons, offering a glimpse into her life as a mother of the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Phelps’ Parents Divorced When He was 9, & the Pool Became His Escape
Phelps’ parents divorced when he was just 9-years-old, and Debbie was forced to become a single mother raising Michael and his two sisters on a teacher’s salary. When asked how she handled it, Debbie told Parenting:
We were a team. My two daughters are two years apart, my daughter and Michael are five years apart, and we all relied on each other. I had three kids at three different pools with three different practice times, and then at one point in my life, I just had to go back to college to get my degree. But I like to keep things hopping; it gives you excitement in your life. I’ve got a great group of friends around me, and we all supported each other.
Phelps talked with Matt Lauer about the effects of divorce on his childhood, and the way it affected the relationship he had with his father. In regards to the challenges faced from the divorce, the star Olympian told Lauer, “I was a kid that always wanted a family. You know, whether our parents are together or not, I still wanted a mom and dad. And I never had that for so long.”
Phelps went on to say that one of the biggest obstacles he has ever had to overcome was the feeling of abandonment by his father.
The pool became an escape for Phelps during this trying time, ESPN reported. Phelps coach, Bob Bowman, became “a surrogate father of sorts.”
“It was like a storybook [marriage], but sometimes chapters go in different directions. We were close, but we grew apart,” Debbie told the Baltimore Sun.
2. Phelps Confronted His Feelings Towards His Father After a 45-Day Stay in Rehab Following a DUI
In 2012, Phelps spoke with Summer Sanders, of Yahoo Sports about his relationship with his father. “I hear so much about your mom, what about your Dad, does he show up at the meets?” Sanders asked. “He came to trials, um, he was there, and I knew he was coming. And I was fine with that. I mean, there’s not much communication but there’s some and I’m ok with that. We’ve been able to, you know, kind of talk, and be fine,” Phelps nervously replied.
In September, 2014 after leaving a casino, Phelps was pulled over and arrested for DUI. “I set myself down a downward spiral. I think it was more of a sign than anything else that I had to get something under control whatever it was,” Phelps told Matt Lauer. When asked if it was a cry for help, Phelps responded, “I think so, I really do.”
The arrest and subsequent voluntary 45-day stint in rehab led to Phelps confronting his feelings of abandonment and avoidance towards his father. “One of the biggest things I was really able to overcome was the feeling of being avoided by my father, being abandoned by my father,” he told Lauer.
Phelps told Lauer there was a breakthrough in the relationship when his dad visited him in rehab. “It showed that he wanted to still be in my life. So that feeling that I had of being avoided and abandoned maybe was a misunderstanding. I think we learned more about each other in that visit than we had in the previous 20 years,” he said.
3. Fred Phelps Is a Former Football Player & Retired Maryland Policeman
Fred Phelps, 65, retired from the Maryland State police in 2004 after 28 years on the force, the Washington Post reported. He worked on call with a tactical assault unit for 11 years, but spent most of career inspecting commercial vehicles on interstates, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Fred’s job as a police officer sometimes took a toll on his relationship with Phelps. In 2001, he told Phelps that he would be at a swim meet in Annapolis, but couldn’t make it because a shift relief wasn’t able to make it to work. Fred told Sports Illustrated, “Michael broke a record that night, and he didn’t want to hear any excuses from me.”
Fred now works in commercial vehicle enforcement training, according to LinkedIn.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Fred played defensive back in high school football at 165 pounds, but went on to play college at 190. “I liked it when the running back and receivers heard footsteps. I liked it when the guards and tackles pulled so you could hit the biggest guy out there,” Fred told the Sun.
“I loved playing ball,” Fred told the Washington Post. “I loved hitting. There was something about laying a shoulder on somebody and hearing that gasp of air leave their body.”
He dreamed of playing for the NFL, and tried out for the Redskins after playing at Fairmont State College in West Virginia, but failed to make the team, according to the Post.
4. Debbie Phelps Has Worked in Education Since 1974
According to the Baltimore Business Journal, Debbie Phelps, 65, began her career as a teacher in 1974 at Havre de Grace Middle School. She has worn several hats in the educational arena including administration, coordinator and principal, as stated on her LinkedIn profile.
In 2012, Debbie became the Director at The Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, Inc. Her LinkedIn profile states:
Deborah Phelps is widely recognized as an innovative, energetic and talented leader and master educator with nearly four decades of teaching and administrator experience. The proud mother of three children and grandmother of two, Ms. Phelps is currently the Director of the Education Foundation of the Baltimore County Public Schools, Inc.
As the Director of The Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, Inc., Ms. Phelps works to mobilize the community in support of public education.
Debbie is also the recipient of several honors and awards including the Brava Award, Top 100 Women in Maryland, as well as Patriot and Inspiration Awards.
5. Debbie Wrote a Book Titled A Mother For All Seasons, & Is Involved in the ADHD Community
In 2009, Debbie added author to her list of accomplishments after writing A Mother For All Seasons. The book’s description on Amazon, where it received 3.5 out of 5 stars, reads:
A single mother and devoted school principal, Debbie knows how to raise a successful child, no matter the odds. Her story is also one of adversity, dedication, and the struggle to overcome life′s challenges. In her memoir, she tells her full story for the first time: What happened to her husband, Michael′s father? What does it take to raise a champion? What were the challenges of being a single mother? What is Michael really like?
Debbie is also highly engaged in the world of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In an interview with Everyday Health, Phelps described how her world-renowned Olympian son was diagnosed with and started taking medication for the disorder when he was just 9-years-old. “Our pediatrician had watched Michael grow up and was familiar with his hyperactivity. He suggested testing for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when Michael was 9. We didn’t have the luxury of a community of ADHD moms that’s available now, so we relied on information from our doctor, the health system, and the assessments of Michael’s school performance that I received from teachers. That’s when he was diagnosed with ADHD and began taking medication to treat it,” she told the publication.
According to Everyday Health, Debbie is active with ADHD Moms Online Community, an internet resource for mothers of children who are affected by the condition. The community is a safe haven where parents can read about the condition and relay their stories.