LONDON – Long before he became an American hero, Michael Phelps experienced life from a far more humbling and painful perspective.
He was the object of scorn and torment at the hands of bullies.
Heading into middle school in Baltimore, young Michael was a hyperactive kid with ADHD and protruding ears. He was an easy target for bullies at a vulnerable age.
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His mom Debbie says Michael wore baseball hats all the time, in part to try to conceal the size of his ears. It didn't work. Other kids continually swatted his ears and made fun of them.
"It was very frustrating at the time," Phelps told Yahoo! Sports last month.
"I always told him to be the stronger person and walk away," recalled Debbie Phelps, a middle school administrator. "He got to the point where he hauled off and decked somebody and got suspended from school.
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"I told him, 'We don't do that, Michael.' He said, 'But they were teasing me.' He could only take it for so long."
After his suspension, Phelps learned to ignore the taunts of others. But while he didn't retaliate, he also didn't forget those who were mean to him.
"It's kind of crazy," he said. "When I do go up around where I used to live [in Baltimore], you still see the same people who were picking on me. They're still around, busing tables or whatever, probably still acting the same way.
"They'll try to talk to me and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, why are talking to me now? You were picking on me then.'"
Debbie recalls an instance shortly after Michael made his first Olympic team, in 2000, at the age of 15. An older swimmer from another Maryland club, who had picked on Michael years earlier, came up to talk to him.
"Hey, I'm so proud of you, congratulations," the kid said to Michael.
"I don't seem to know you," Michael responded.
"I'm so-and-so, remember?" Debbie recalled him saying. "I swam at so-and-so club."
"No," Michael said, "I don't think I know you."
Afterward, Debbie said to her son, "You knew him, didn't you?"
Michael said, "He wasn't nice to me as an age-group swimmer. He's not going to be my friend now because I'm an Olympian."
In retrospect, some of those adolescent difficulties probably helped Phelps in the pool. It was a place to release energy and unleash frustrations. And if kids picked on him on dry land, he'd make sure nobody could stay with him in the water.
"I kind of laugh at it now," Phelps said. "I think it made me stronger going through that."
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