As the mom of two children who have ADHD (one minute, one full-blown), the "behind the scenes" story of Michael Phelps just warms the cockles of my heart. (You should have seen the ear-to-ear smile on my daughter's face when she realized that an eight-time gold medal winner has the same thing she does. Talk about an inspiration!).
Here's the article, published recently in the New York Times:
August 10, 2008
Phelps’s Mother Recalls Helping Her Son Find Gold-Medal Focus
By MICHAEL WINERIP
DEBORAH PHELPS’S third baby and only son was larger than life from Day 1 — 9 pounds, 6 ounces and 23 inches long. As a little boy, said the mother, he asked 25 zillion questions, always wanting to be the center of attention. If he wasn’t zooming by on his big-wheel tricycle, he was swinging past on the monkey bars.
Starting with preschool, teachers complained: Michael couldn’t stay quiet at quiet time, Michael wouldn’t sit at circle time, Michael didn’t keep his hands to himself, Michael was giggling and laughing and nudging kids for attention.
As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.
“I said, maybe he’s bored,” Ms. Phelps recalled saying to his teacher. “Her comment to me — ‘Oh, he’s not gifted.’ I told her I didn’t say that, and she didn’t like that much. I was a teacher myself so I didn’t challenge her, I just said, ‘What are you going to do to help him?’ ”
In the elementary grades at their suburban Baltimore school, Ms. Phelps said, Michael excelled in things he loved — gym and hands-on lessons, like science experiments. “He read on time, but didn’t like to read,” she said. “So I gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages, even if he just read the pictures and captions.”
She will never forget one teacher’s comment: “This woman says to me, ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything.’ ”
His grades were B’s and C’s and a few D’s.
It was a tough period. Ms. Phelps and her husband, a state trooper, were divorcing. She had just gone back to school to get a master’s degree to become an administrator, she said, and at the same time she had to be the 24/7 parent.
Michael grew like crazy, but not evenly — his ears looked huge, and when he ran, his arms swung below his knees. (He was on his way to being 6 feet 4 inches tall with an arm span of 6 feet 7 inches.) Kids bullied him, and when he whacked one on the school bus, he was suspended from the bus for several days.
When he was in fifth grade, during his annual check-up, Ms. Phelps and the family physician, Dr. Charles Wax, discussed whether Michael might have A.D.H.D. — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. By then, the Phelpses were a swimming family. (Michael’s older sister Whitney at 15 was ranked first in the country in the 200-meter butterfly, though her career would be cut short by a back injury.) Dr. Wax’s children also swam, and he’d noticed Michael at the Phelps sisters’ swim meets. “Michael used to run around like a little crazy person mooching food off people,” said Ms. Phelps.
The doctor suggested sending assessment forms to his teachers. Their consensus: Can’t sit still, can’t keep quiet, can’t focus.
At age 9, Michael was put on Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat hyperactivity.
His mother thinks it helped a little. “He seemed to be able to focus longer,” she said. “He could get through homework without moving around so much.” She said he was still a middling student. “It might have raised some C’s to B’s,” she said. But if a homework assignment had to be at least four sentences, she said, “he’d just do four sentences.”
After two years, Michael asked to get off the meds. He had to go to the school nurse’s office to take a pill at lunch, she said, and felt stigmatized. “Out of the blue, he said to me: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, Mom. My buddies don’t do it. I can do this on my own.’ ”
“I was always stern as a parent,” she said, “but from Day 1, I included my children as part of the decision process. So I listened.” After consulting with Dr. Wax, Michael stopped medication.
In the meantime, Michael the swimmer had appeared. By 10, he was ranked nationally in his age group. Ms. Phelps watched the boy who couldn’t sit still at school sit for four hours at a meet waiting to swim his five minutes’ worth of races.
When Michael was 11, his swim coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Bob Bowman — still his coach — took the Phelpses aside and talked about Michael’s gift. “Bob says, ‘By 2000, I look for him to be in the Olympic trials,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps. “ ‘By 2004, he makes the Olympics. By 2008, he’ll set world records. By 2012, the Olympics will be in New York and’ — I said ‘Bob, stop, he’s 11, he’s in middle school.’ ”
As it turned out, the boy would move four years faster than his coach’s prediction (and New York would lose its Olympic bid).
At age 12 Michael needed an algebra tutor, and was so antsy in school that his mother suggested the teacher sit him at a table in the back. And yet he willingly got up at 6:30 daily for 90-minute morning practices and swam 2 to 3 hours every afternoon.
By 15, in 2000, he was at the Olympics; at 16 he had his first world record; and by 19, at the 2004 Olympics, he had won 8 medals, 6 of them gold.
Of all his mental gifts, the one that amazes his mother the most is this: “Michael’s mind is like a clock. He can go into the 200 butterfly knowing he needs to do the first 50 in 24.6 to break the record and can put that time in his head and make his body do 24.6 exactly.”
He always did his swimming homework. “In high school, they’d send tapes from his international races,” Ms. Phelps said. “He’d say, ‘Mom I want to have dinner in front of the TV and watch tapes.’ We’d sit and he’d critique his races. He’d study the turns — ‘See, that’s where I lifted my head.’ I couldn’t even see what he was talking about. Over and over. I’m like, ‘whoa.’ ”
These days, Ms. Phelps, 57, is principal of Windsor Mill, a middle school in Baltimore County. Her A.D.H.D. son is so renowned, she was hired this summer by a pharmaceutical firm, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen, as a “celebrity mom” who will answer questions about her experiences with A.D.H.D. on a company-sponsored Web site.
While the company makes an A.D.H.D. medication, Concerta, and arranged my interview with Ms. Phelps, during our three hours together, Ms. Phelps never mentioned the drug. Nor did her son ever take it. Like so many parents, she seemed conflicted about having given her son any medication. “There were so many things going on at the time — the divorce, Michael’s maturity, we changed school districts,” she said. “Were meds the right thing? I could be on the fence either way. That was the decision that was made.”
More to the point, I think, is the moral of her story, which offers hope for parents of any child with a challenge like A.D.H.D.: Too many adults looked at Ms. Phelps’s boy and saw what he couldn’t do. This week, the world will be tuned to the Beijing Olympics to see what he can do.