Throughout the London Olympic Games, Michael Phelps' mother, Debbie, and his two older sisters, Whitney and Hillary, have been prominent. Every time he swims, there are cutaways of his mother, yelling or grimacing or jumping into the air.
There have also been numerous interviews with his mother, as well as with his mother and his two older sisters. The two older sisters, they said, had taken an interest in swimming before Michael was born, and both had Olympic aspirations. The mother and sisters took Michael to the pool from an early age, and, according to them, it was their influence that drove him toward his present success.
None of them--neither the mother nor the two sisters--ever mention Michael's father. He has not been seen at the London Olympics, nor was he at the Beijing Games. It appears that Michael's father, Fred, is a persona non grata to this close-knit family comprised of mother, daughters and son.
When Michael's father didn't attend the Beijing Games, Fred told told interviewers, "I'm very proud of him and all he's done. This is not about me, it's about him." Based on this one quote, he does not seem like an uncaring father.
In an interview with Yahoo! reporter Summer Sanders following the winning of his 22nd gold medal (in case you have been living on Mars, he has won more medals at the Olympics than any other athlete), he spoke briefly about his relationship with his father. In a muted voice, when asked about his father, he said his father had come to the U.S. trials but not the Olympics. When asked about communication, he replied that there was "not much communication." When Summers pressed him, he added, "We've been able to kind of talk. …"
It was painfully clear from his bowed head and stiff body language that he didn't want to talk about his father and felt awkward doing so.
As a psychoanalyst, I try to read between the lines. The fact that such an important figure, his father, has seemingly been missing from his life and from almost all of his Olympic ventures arouses questions. Although many athletes, such as Michael Phelps, have been raised without fathers, research shows that fathers, or father-figures, are very important to a child's development.
According to this research, 50 percent of children with fathers get mostly A's through high school, compared with 35 percent without resident fathers; children without a father have a 30 percent higher risk to take alcohol or drugs; an international study found that children raised by single parents were much more likely to engage in violent crime; and another study found that boys from single-parent families have a higher rate of incarceration.
Of course, so far Michael Phelps is a striking exception to these statistics and his future seems bright. That he is a great athlete is well known. Whether he will be an all-around, well-adjusted person is another question. What we do know so far is that he suffered from ADHD at the age of 9, when his parents divorced. It is well known that children suffer from anxiety when their parents break up, and the anxiety that Michael suffered may have contributed to symptoms of ADHD.
In investigating how Michael's relationship with his father evolved, I discovered the following statement at Jockbio.com: "After years of fighting, his parents divorced. High school sweethearts, they had separated before Michael was born, gotten back together, and then split for good in 1992. The kids went to live with Debbie. Michael grew very close to his mother, while Fred did what he could to keep a foothold in his children's lives."
Neither Debbie nor Fred have had much to say about their relationship. But if they first separated before Michael was born, then got back together, then separated again seven years later, this would appear to suggest that they had a stormy relationship. Such a relationship would undoubtedly have a negative effect on Michael. Hiliary, Michael's older sister, said about her father, "When we started, my dad would be up at 4 a.m. on the mornings, I had 5:30 practice." Hilary, who competed as a swimmer in her childhood, then said that after the divorce, her mother took over that role.
After a divorce, it is the custodial parent who interprets the meaning of the breakup to the children. This parent can tell the children something like, "Sometimes two good people can't make it work together," and continue to support the children's relationship with the other parent. At other times, the divorce is bitter and the custodial parent may tell the children that the other parent "walked out on us."
Whether Fred Phelps has been kept out of his children's lives by the mother, or whether his own anger at Debbie made him want to distance himself, is unclear.
In an interview before the Beijing Olympics, Fred was asked about his absence from his son's life. He responded, "I'm very proud of him and all he's done. This is not about me, it's about him." What this says about Fred is that he is not a father who tries to cash in on his son's fame. He is content to watch his son from the sidelines and to not interfere.
And certainly, putting all speculation about the divorce aside, Debbie must be given a lot of credit for her strong guidance and loyal devotion to her son, and kudos for his accomplishments.
Lately, there have also been reports that Michael has a new girlfriend, Megan Rossee, an aspiring actress from Los Angeles. And while Michael's mother says that she wants him to continue to compete, Michael has announced his retirement and is appearing in public with his girlfriend.
Will this relationship become a conflict with his mother? Will his father welcome the girlfriend? Will there be rumors upon rumors? Time will quell.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D., is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.