From Sun Magazine: Phelps family values

Mom Debbie and sisters Hilary and Whitney cheer on their Olympian — and vice versa

July 03, 2012|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Hilary Phelps was approaching the finish line of her first Ironman triathlon. Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" was playing. She was wrung out from more than 14 hours of swimming, cycling and now running, certain that there wasn't a single drop of liquid left inside her.

Then she saw her family, and the tears started flowing as she ran into their arms — mom Debbie, sister Whitney and brother Michael.

"I've never done anything this impressive," she remembers Michael saying.

"Are you kidding me?" Hilary responded.

It was July 25, 2010, not even two years after Michael Phelps had won eight gold medals at the Beijing Games, smashing previous records and taking a pretty good shot at the title of greatest swimmer ever.

But Michael's admiration after her triathlon, says Hilary, is part of what it means to be a Phelps, a family comprising not so much one star orbited by lesser planets as a tightly bound and interconnected constellation.

"We're all impressed by each other's feats," she says.

With Michael headed to his fourth and final Summer Games later this month, the mutual support society that is his family is London-bound as well. They are both cheering squad and reality check, a home base for him as his travels have taken him around the world and his celebrity has soared.

"He needs to connect. 'I just need to see my family,' he'll say. It grounds you; it's safety," Hilary Phelps says. "It's why we go to so many meets. He can see us in the stands."

Family comes up often with Michael, particularly when he is talking to children in his charitable foundation's wellness and water safety programs. He points to his parents' divorce when he was 9 as one of the challenges of his childhood, but credits his mother, and Hilary and Whitney, who are seven and five years older, respectively, with setting him on the path to success.

"Being able to watch my sisters and mom do what they did … it made me a stronger person," the 27-year-old swimmer told a group of kids at a Boys & Girls Club in Indianapolis this spring. "That was super cool for me, having three women in the household showing me everything. I was the baby. Being the youngest is the best — you get away with everything."

His mother, Debbie, the principal of Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore County, has become the go-to reaction shot for the TV cameras after his races and a familiar figure in his commercials and anecdotes. He joked in Indianapolis that she loves the city not just for the personal memories — he qualified for his first Olympics, in 2000, there — but because there's a restaurant there that she likes.

"'We'll have to go to P.F. Chang's,'" he cooed, mimicking her voice.

That may be an old joke that needs retiring, since Debbie moved two years ago from the family's longtime home in Rodgers Forge to the Ritz-Carlton Residences just across the Inner Harbor from the Chang's on Pratt Street.

Whitney Flickinger, who works as a recruiter, has since moved to Olney, and Hilary Phelps, who operates her own website, to the Washington area, but they frequently reunite at their mother's condo or wherever Michael is swimming.

"I get energy from downtown," Debbie Phelps says. "And now that Michael's billboard is up, I get to see my son every night."

As do all drivers approaching downtown on Interstate 95, where an Under Armour billboard features Michael with his arms fully extended to the 6-foot, 7-inch span that has helped propel his remarkable swimming career. Debbie has probably seen more of the sign than of her son lately, with his intensive pre-Olympic training taking him out of town for much of the year.

But through texting and Skype, his family has stayed in touch — and provided a necessary break from his sport.

"I don't talk swimming with him," Whitney said. "It's just, 'Love you, thinking of you.'"

Swimming, though, is one of the ties that bind the siblings, and something that has brought the family much joy but also produced a measure of sadness.

Hilary began swimming as a young girl, and soon Whitney followed. It started casually enough, but in true Phelps fashion, soon turned into overachieving.

"We lived in the middle of all this acreage in Harford County," Debbie said of the early years of her marriage to Fred Phelps, her high school sweetheart and now a retired Maryland state trooper. "You had to get in the car to be with other kids. We joined a swim club because I wanted socialization for the kids, I wanted water safety for them and, three, I wanted to hang out with other moms."

Hilary remembers coming in third in one race as a 7-year-old and telling her mom she wanted one of the bigger trophies. "I wanted to swim where the fast girls swam," she said.

Soon she would. At a meet against North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmers, a coach approached Debbie and said they had room for Hilary on the team. And, the coach said, Whitney too.

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