AUGUSTA // Debbie Phelps received a lot of face time during the Olympics. Now, in the wake of her son winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Games, she is putting out her own book to relate the experiences of a single mother raising three children, one of whom turned out to be the greatest swimmer.
In A Mother For All Seasons, to have been released late last night, Michael Phelps's mother even touches on the embarrassment of her son being photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe after his Olympic triumph. "Yes, it's an obstacle, a speed bump," Debbie said as she worked late at the Baltimore-area middle school where she serves as the principal. "But things happen for a reason. This is something that all parents go through in some form, it just doesn't happen to most people after your son has won eight gold medals at the Olympics."
The picture of Phelps turned up in a British tabloid on Feb 1, severely damaging the reputation of an athlete who broke Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record for the most gold medals at one Olympics. It was the second major faux pas for the swimmer, who pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge after winning six golds at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Debbie was livid when her son called with news of his drunken driving arrest, and it was another tough blow when she learned of his latest troubles. But she made sure to express her love and understanding, especially when he came under intense criticism, lost a major sponsor and received a three-month suspension from USA Swimming.
"It was difficult, very difficult," she said. "As a parent, you very much want to listen to what your children have to say, and you also hope they listen to what you have to say, too. I told him how much I loved him. "He knows he has my support and anything he needs. A mother is always there for her children. Michael knew that, but he needed to hear it." The swimmer was hesitant to discuss the incident at first, even with his mother. But Debbie managed to break down that barrier. "There were times when he was like, 'I don't want to talk right now'. And I would [say], 'I know you don't, but maybe we need to'," she related.
"Eventually, we were able to talk about the whole incident and process it and he was able to share with me his side." Debbie's book is divided into 12 chapters, mirroring the months of the year and the ever-changing seasons. She writes of an idyllic childhood growing up in a small town in western Maryland, then having to deal with two traumatic blows: the untimely death of her father, and a divorce that left her a single parent raising two daughters and a son.
"My mother had no profession," she said. "When my father died, there she was. I watched her make five dollars out of one dollar, a dollar out of 10 cents. She stretched a budget. But she also taught me so much about how to embrace life: have faith, believe in God and we will get through this as a family." Those lessons were invaluable to Debbie when her marriage fell apart. "The man I married, who was the father to my three children, he was like my knight in shining armour," Debbie said. "He was my high school sweetheart. We were together a long time. But what I found is that when you get married sometimes, instead of growing closer, you grow apart.
"That happens in a lot of marriages around the country and probably around the world. When that whole thing happened, I was surprised, I was shocked, it was not what I expected. "Now, what do you do when something goes wrong in your life? Some people go into deep depression. They can't process the whole thing. Or you can accept it and try to move forward in your life." Drawing on her mother's experience, Debbie made some jarring changes. She was a teacher working at a high-performing middle school, but felt more fulfilled after switching to a school where many of the students came from underprivileged backgrounds. She also returned to college to get her master's degree, which led to a new career path as a principal and school administrator.
Throughout the book, she mixes in writings from all of her children, everything from school essays to classroom papers to Phelps' childhood journal. "When they were reading those things, they would say, 'I remember writing that'," Debbie said. "It would even take them back mentally to what they were doing when they were writing those things. Being in a college dorm. Being in so-and-so's English class.
"Life is so rich. Sometimes, people don't embrace how rich it can be. In the book, you can hear that voice. What do you do when an obstacle gets in the way? How do you overcome it? How do you embrace it?" Those were handy lessons when dealing with Phelps's latest woes. While clearly she does not defend her son's actions, Debbie seems stung by the ferocity of the condemnation and ridicule her son faced after the infamous photograph was published. "Any time a parent's child gets belittled, it hurts, it hurts a lot," she said. "Sometimes, people are cruel."
This incident has led Debbie to a new crusade: developing programmes to help athletes cope with life after fame. She has read up on the subject and believes many athletes, after working to develop their skills for competition, find themselves unprepared to deal with the real world. "When they've met this optimal goal, sometimes it's a hard process to come down from it," she said. "When that last event has been swum, what happens next?"