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Olympic Mom Tells ‘Her Story’

The mother of the most decorated Olympian in history is also an education advocate, a motivational speaker and a workaholic

Jan Donlan, IRMC Foundation president, and Debbie Phelps with “Her Story” presenting sponsor Helen Post

Jan Donlan, IRMC Foundation president, and Debbie Phelps with “Her Story” presenting sponsor Helen Post

“You look familiar. I’m sure I know you from somewhere.” Debbie Phelps hears things like that a lot. She can be walking down the street or shopping in a store and strangers will stop and stare. It only takes a minute before the light bulb goes on and they say, “I’ve got it. I saw you on TV. You’re the mother of that Olympic swimmer, the one with all those gold medals.”

Yes, Debbie is the woman television cameras zoomed in on as her son Michael churned through the water, breaking record after record. She’s also quick to point out that she has two daughters, Hilary and Whitney, who were swimming laps long before their younger brother ever thought about tugging on a swimsuit.

Both sisters were tops in their age group, but it was Michael who stood out when as a 15-year-old he made the U.S. Olympic team that competed in the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney, Australia. Even though he didn’t medal, the buzz about his future potential began.

The buzz became a loud roar as four years later Michael began his pursuit of gold in Athens, then Beijing, followed by London, and last summer in Rio de Janeiro. Through it all, Debbie was there in the stands, cheering her son on, alternately smiling and wiping away tears of joy as he passed other swimmers and was first to touch the wall. During his swimming career, Michael, now 31 years old and officially retired, won 23 gold medals.