One family's ebb and flow

Swimming: A sister's athletic disappointments and his parents' breakup form a rough backdrop to Michael Phelps' smooth assault on world records.


November 21, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Michael Phelps awoke today on the other side of the world.

En route to two meets next week in Australia, he stopped in New Zealand for research and development work at the University of Otago. His strokes and body specifications are being gauged in one of the world's most accurate flumes. The data will be used to design the custom swimsuits Phelps will wear next summer, when he tries to make Olympic history.

It is sophisticated business - and a long way from his family's introduction to the sport.

Before high-tech Speedos, there was a hungry little girl, a sister competing in a floral print suit with frills and one shoulder strap. Before that, there were teen-agers hanging out at a municipal pool in a Western Maryland mill town.

Phelps is expected to be a focal point of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. He is attempting to become the second man to win seven gold medals in one games - or perhaps the first to win five in individual events. That quest has followed a methodical progression, but it is not without paradox.

The 18-year-old rules a country club sport, but traces his family tree to a blue-collar community.

Phelps never heard a horn sounding a shift change, but by age 4 he was familiar with the demanding rhythms of his sport, one that led his family to relocate.

He is living a dream, but one sister's Olympic aspirations turned into a nightmare.

Phelps has acknowledged that his parents passed on good genes and a serious work ethic, but he hasn't spoken to his father since June.

Regardless of his current family dynamics, Phelps understands it wasn't luck or random occurrence that placed him on the path that made him the fastest all-around swimmer ever.

"Being able to see my two older sisters grow up with swimming and dedicate themselves to the sport, it's a different environment," Phelps said. "I grew up around the pool, I was always around the pool. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be here today."

To find Phelps' roots, drive west on Interstates 70 and 68, past Hagerstown and Cumberland, down State Route 36 to where George's Creek flows down a valley into the Potomac.

Debbie Phelps, Michael's mother, was raised in Westernport, population 2,129. Fred Phelps, his father, grew up a mile away in Luke, which had 80 residents in the 2000 census. Piedmont, across the Potomac in West Virginia, completes the "Tri-Towns."

Debbie's father, a good soccer and baseball player in his day, had his own contracting business; Fred's was a chemical engineer at the paper mill now operated by MeadWestvaco. It employs 1,350; nearly 2,500 worked there in the late 1960s.

"Luke used to have 250 people," Fred said during a visit there on a dazzling autumn day. "Somebody dies and the plant buys the property. They'll buy up everything, so they won't have to pay taxes. That's the mill you smell, but the locals will say that smells like bread and butter. I used to know every person and every house in town. There were three seasons: football, hunting and fishing."

In 1986, Allegany County closed Bruce, the high school in Westernport. Students were sent north to Lonaconing, where there is a monument to favorite son Lefty Grove, the late Hall of Fame pitcher who won 300 games between the two world wars. The consolidated school was given the name Westmar, but now it, too, might close.

The stadium behind what is now Westmar Middle is used by rec teams, but it was a livelier place when Fred played football, basketball and baseball for the Bruce Bulldogs.

One of the older wiseacres was Leo Mazzone, now the pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves. Interscholastic athletics for girls were not offered, but Debbie competed during school field days and worked the sidelines as a cheerleader.

"On Friday night, everyone in the community was at the high school football game," Debbie said. "It was a wonderful place. There was a municipal pool in town. You went there in the summer to sunbathe."

Fred was a 165-pound defensive back in high school, but went 190 as a college freshman. He said he didn't need the extra weight to leave an impression.

"I liked it when the running back and receivers heard footsteps," Fred said. "I liked it when the guards and tackles pulled so you could hit the biggest guy out there."

At Fairmont State College in West Virginia, Fred studied physical education and set school records for interceptions in a season and, after he was steered to track and field by a football assistant, the triple jump.

In the 1968 Bruce High yearbook, listing the place where he would most likely be found, Fred listed the street where Debbie lived. A year behind Fred, she followed him to Fairmont State. They married in May 1973.

On to Harford County

Both had education degrees, and the newlyweds agreed to follow the first good job offer. Her older sister taught in Harford County, and that fall Debbie began teaching home economics at a middle school in Havre de Grace.

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