Michael Phelps holds the record for winning the most Olympic events in history — by far! The famed swimmer has 28 medals to his name, including 23 gold medals. But one of the sources of his drive to win comes from an unlikely source: his ADHD.
Here’s how Phelps has turned his trouble with focus into athletic triumph.
Before swimming, a bumpy childhood
Describing himself as a child in his book No Limits: The Will to Succeed, Phelps doesn’t paint a very flattering picture: “I had big ears. I was scrawny. I got picked on, a lot.” And in his earlier book, Beneath the Surface: My Story, he says he spoke too quickly and wouldn’t look people in the eye when they talked to him.
As early as kindergarten, Phelps had trouble with inattention. A teacher told his mother, herself a teacher, “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.”
Phelps was a mischief-maker who liked being the center of attention. In science class, he turned on all the natural gas burners so that the smell would bug his classmates. He signed up to juggle at a school talent show, knowing full well he didn’t know how.
“I simply couldn’t sit still, because it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time,” Phelps recalls in Beneath the Surface. “I had to be in the middle of everything.”
That was especially difficult at home. When he was 7, Phelps’ parents divorced. He says, “As I began to grasp that my dad would be away for a long time, I needed something that could grab my attention.”
Discovering swimming — and his potential
His two older sisters swam at a local aquatic club, so his mother decided he might give it a try, too.
“You would think that on the first day I hit the water I just sort of turned into a dolphin and never wanted to leave the pool,” he wrote in Beneath the Surface. “No way. I hated it. We’re talking screaming, kicking fit-throwing, goggle-tossing hate.”
With practice, Phelps found his comfort zone: “Once I figured out how to swim, I felt so free.” He recalls, “I could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind. In the water, I felt, for the first time, in control.”
He wasn’t the only one who appreciated his newfound passion. “My mom loved the fact that I swam, because she wanted me to drain as much energy out of my body as I possibly could,” according to Phelps. She didn’t mind the many hours she had to spend shuttling to and from practice and competitions.
Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD in sixth grade. But while he couldn’t sit through class without fidgeting, he could swim for up to three hours at the pool after school.
By age 10, Phelps was a nationally ranked swimmer. At 11, he met famed swim coach Bob Bowman. Bowman was an intimidating authority figure who wasn’t afraid to make Phelps practice grueling drills.
“Bob and I didn’t seem like a good match at all. I was the goofball; he was the taskmaster,” Phelps recalls. The two butted heads. But Bowman saw winning potential in Phelps.
“Bob was very frank about my talents, my attitude, my inconsistent focus, and my dueling moments of indifference and determination. He also said that I had a realistic opportunity other kids didn’t have.”
Reaching for gold
Phelps went on to defy all the expectations both Bowman and his family held for him. He swam in the 2000 Olympics, at age 15, and has medaled at every summer Olympic event since.
Several times, Phelps has declared he was ready to retire from swimming. But he keeps heading back to the water.
Out of the pool, he’s dedicated to promoting water safety and healthy living to youth through swimming programs. The Michael Phelps Foundation has introduced swimming to more than 15,000 children through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Special Olympics.
For Phelps, the pool has been many things. It’s been a refuge, an outlet and a place where his strength and passion have propelled him to greatness. Now, through his foundation, Phelps hopes the pool can be “that place” for thousands of kids with ADHD and learning differences.
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The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.