Talking Olympic memories and motherhood with Debbie Phelps

Chris Chase
July 28, 2010
View photos

One of the biggest stars to emerge from the 2008 Olympics wasn't an athlete or coach, but a spectator sitting in the stands. Michael Phelps' mother, Debbie, was a fixture at his races and a favorite of NBC television cameras during her son's historic run to eight gold medals. Her reaction when Michael out-touched Milorad Cavic by .01 seconds in the 100 butterfly became of the indelible images of Beijing.

Debbie was in London on Wednesday as part of the announcement that Proctor & Gamble has signed a five-Olympic partnership deal with the IOC. She took some time from her busy schedule to talk on the phone with Fourth-Place Medal about the memories of Beijing, the anticipation of London, raising an Olympian and what makes her most proud as a mother.

Fourth-Place Medal: We just past the halfway point between Beijing and London. Have you started looking ahead to 2012 or are still reveling in the excitement of 2008?

Debbie Phelps: I'll never forget 2008. It was just an amazing time for the Olympics and my son. It seems very difficult to believe that we're at the two year mark and we're two years out from London. It's quite exciting, but I get really excited about the Olympics and I look forward to it immensely.

FPM: I know you had so many, but which moment from Beijing was most memorable for you? Have you watched replays of the races?

DP: Yes I have. I've spoken across the country at different venues and use as my intro video of watching my son's races and all those VIP moments I've had -- which is when I fill up with water in my eyes and tears come down my face. Every one of those races has a story behind it. If I had to pick one I feel that -- oh, I can't pick one -- Chris, make it a little hard for me. Having the president there for the 400 IM was amazing. Watching the 100 fly finish was incredible. When I watch the 200 fly, that's my favorite event of my son's -- after I watched that race, realizing he couldn't see the majority of that race because his goggles were filling with water as he was swimming. To me that was a true testament of what excellent coaching and practice can do. Becaues he counted strokes from wall to wall, so that was kind of an amazing time. The relays were phenomenal. Jason Lezak when we took the Frenchman down: crazy. You know, the eighth gold medal: outstanding to realize that my son had accomplished his goal. So I had to give you a little bit about each one, I'm sorry.

View photos

FPM: I remember each of them vividly and enjoy remembering them too. So, Proctor & Gamble signed a deal to become an Olympic sponsor through 2020. What will your role be? Some other Olympic mothers are involved as well?

DP: Right now all the parameters haven't been set in stone, but they brought moms together here in London from all over the world. And it's really amazing to be able to see the mother of the Lightning Bolt (Usain Bolt) and that of Leisel Jones, a swimmer from Australia and we have someone here from Nigeria. We all came her today to launch the "Proud Sponsor of Moms" campaign, which you saw little snippets of back in Vancouver. Proctor and Gamble has become the IOC's 11th partnership and they're globally bringing all the moms together. They're looking for our insight and our knowledge of what we experienced in raising Olympic athletes.

FPM: You're going to be taking part in a documentary that asks what it takes to raise an Olympian and I know you've answered that in your book, A Mother For All Seasons. But as someone who grew up in swimming and is still active with the sport as a coach during summers, what I want to know is: how did you avoid becoming -- and I'm sure you know a lot of them -- the dreaded swimming parent?

DP: (laughs) I found that, first of all, I had my own niche. I think parents need to find out who they are and be comfortable with who they are. I'm a school principal, I love my job and love my profession and then I go enjoy watching Michael. It's his job and his profession and I kind of get caught up in the moment. Every time my children competed, I was the mom in the stands and that's all I was. Whether they won or whether they lost, I was the mom who was always there. And now I'm getting emotional here, sorry. I feel great, great love for my children in whatever they do and I didn't get caught up in the hoopla in carrying bags or writing down times or all that kind of stuff. I just enjoyed who they were and what they did.

FPM: Of all the things Michael has done in and out of the pool, what makes you most proud as a mother?

View photos

DP: One of the biggest things that warms my heart with my son is watching him with children. I love to watch him at his swim schools, when he goes to the Boys and Girls Club of America, which he supports. It's just watching him give back to the next generation. That's one thing that tremendously warms my heart. No matter what type of fearless competitor he is, how determined he is in the water, it's the heart he has of giving back to people.

FPM: Last week there was an Olympic park dedication in Towson [a suburb of Phelps' hometown of Baltimore] and you gave your son a call and he showed up. That must have put a smile on everyone's face out there.

DP: I did, because nobody knew Michael was coming. Our county executive, Jim Smith, who is going out on this term, believed in celebrating success of our community and that was his idea to build the Olympian park. Every time they've had a function, Michael has never been in town. And so I said to him, "Michael, they're unveiling all the statues and plaques," he's like, "I'm there mom." And when he walked onto that park and everyone saw him, they were so happy and proud and that made me proud as a mom.

FPM: Final question, perhaps the most important: The Baltimore Ravens opened training camp yesterday --

DP: Yeah, I know!

FPM: So what's your prediction for Joe Flacco and the boys this year?

DP: Hey, we're going to the Super Bowl! The Baltimore Ravens are on it this year and we'll be there every game. Michael loves the Ravens and I love watching Ray Lewis on defense. Joe Flacco is awesome. Ed Reed, the whole crew. We're ready for football season.