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Bringing Up Olympians: Athletes' Parents Shed Their Own Blood, Sweat And Tears


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk Olympics. Americans Charlie White and Meryl Davis took gold in ice dancing yesterday. And one of the first things they did was thank the people who helped get them there - the coaches, nutritionists, skating association and of course, their parents. Here's Davis at a press conference just after the big win.


MERYL DAVIS: We had families who had very similar ideas of how they wanted to raise their children, similar values. The ability to kind of just work hard at what it is we want without having to worry about sort of any outside factors is really - it's a blessing. And it's something that I think we don't take for granted.

MARTIN: We wanted to hear more about what it's like for parents of Olympians at the games and throughout those early years of training and competition, so we are thrilled to be joined today by two Olympic parents. Debbie Phelps is the mom of swimmer Michael Phelps who is the most decorated Olympian of all time. She's a mom of three, including Michael, and author of "A Mother For All Seasons." Welcome, Debbie Phelps. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

DEBBIE PHELPS: Thank you for having me. It's a great opportunity.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Calvin Hill. He is the father of Grant Hill. Grant is a recently retired NBA star who won gold at the 1996 Olympics as a part of the U.S. men's basketball team. And Calvin Hill is also a retired NFL player. Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

CALVIN HILL: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Debbie Phelps, let's go back to that first Olympics. Now we've all seen - in fact, I think for a lot of us, it's our favorite picture, you know, the parents in the stands. And you had that opportunity, experience many, many times. But I wanted to go back to Michael's first Olympics. Can you describe what it was like when you realized he was going to medal?

PHELPS: Well, in 2000, which was Michael's first Olympics in Sydney, Australia, it was rather invigorating as we went into Olympic trials, first of all, because he was a mere 15 years of age with braces on his teeth, very long, lean and lanky. And going into Olympic trials, I had no set expectation from Michael. At 15, he was very young to be able to make the Olympic team. But as that swim came down the 200 fly at trials, and he was not in the first or second place seat going into the last turn, I remember not being able to watch.

And all the sudden I looked at the scoreboard, and I heard the announcer say, and here comes Phelps. And Michael got second at Olympic trials behind Tom Malchow who was 25. When he went into Sydney, he did not medal at his first Olympics in 2000. But if the pool had been a little bit longer, I think he would've medaled when he 15 years of age.

MARTIN: So is there - and of course, he subsequently went on to this, you know, incredible career. What do you see as your job there, you know, at the Olympics? I mean, he's spoken often about how important you and his sisters are or were to his career and how much he really needed you to be there. What did you see as your job?

PHELPS: I don't know if I'd want to put the word job on it. But it was a responsibility as a mother, as a family to be able to give him the support, the guidance, the understanding, the ability to make decisions, the ability to build a team around him, which we had a - we have a very unique team Phelps. So my responsibility is for that support, that love. It's OK. We can do it again. If you want to leave the sport, it's all right. So it was that ear, that heart and that understanding.

MARTIN: Calvin Hill, your situation a little different for you because your son was already successful as an NBA player, star in the U.S. I mean, people remember his storied college career, and then he was rookie of the year, co-rookie of the year. And then you were used to the sports spotlight yourself as an NFL player. But is there something about the Olympics that feels a little different?

HILL: Well, I'd say so. And I'm old enough to remember the 1960 Olympics when I first really became aware of the Olympics. And we lost the 100 yard dash to a German named Armin Hary. And I remember a movie "The Grand Olympics," and it talked about the loss of that 100 meter dash. And so 1964, it was very, very important, the Tokyo Olympics, for the entire country. We were going to reclaim something that was ours.

And the winner of that 100 yard dash was - 100 meter dash was Bob Hayes who I subsequently played with in Dallas. And one of the first things I wanted to do when I got to Dallas was to see Bob Hayes and to see his medal. That was a big thing to me in 1969. Also at Yale, I was a fraternity brother of a guy named Don Schollander who won four gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics. And so that was a big thing. And so I never envisioned anybody that I knew other than those two.

And so, you know - so in 1996 when Grant made the Olympic team, was chosen to be on the Olympic team, you know, aside, you know, luminaries like, you know, Karl Malone and The Admiral and, you know, Shaq, it was a big thrill. It was a foregone conclusion that they would probably win. But, you know, there's a certain, you know, trepidation, if you will, during that whole Olympiad and the games. And, you know, you get a chill. You get a chill. I mean, he had won at different levels, but suddenly he's on a podium and the "Star-Spangled Banner" is playing. And as many times as I've seen it, you know, you almost want to cry.

And you start thinking, I wish my father had been there. You know, I wish my mother had been there. I started thinking about all the people who had been a part of it. You know, you mentioned it takes a village. And although, you know, my wife and I were certainly very involved, I started thinking about all the other people who were a part of him getting to that podium. And it's a very striking moment.

MARTIN: Debbie Phelps, one of the things, though, about the Olympics, which, I mean, it occasionally happens with, you know, professional sports where people show the family in the cutaways. I mean, they do. You know, they show it at NBA games, which are televised, for example. They show - occasionally, they show the family, often show a lot of the celebrities in the stands and so forth. But at the Olympic Games, they really showcase the families. Did you feel any pressure yourself to comport yourself in a certain way? Or did you forget about it after a certain point? Or did you feel kind of under the spotlight yourself?

PHELPS: You know, it was - to me, it was just a time where we were together as a family and as a family for our nation. You know, when I was shown on TV with my daughters on my left and my right and my granddaughter, eventually in London, people felt like they knew us, that we were just -we were approachable. And there have been so many people that come up to us and have spoken to us and asked for advice and told us stories.

And that's been very warming to my heart. I just really got caught up in the Olympic spirit in reference to all the gains that Michael has been at. And just being able to have that patriotism and honor, to be able to represent your country and be that family in the stand with all the other ones. We just want our children to do their very best. And we want them to be proud of what they've accomplished, not only for themselves but for their country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about what it takes to parent an Olympian. My guests are Debbie Phelps, whose son Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, and Calvin Hill is the father of former, recently retired NBA player Grant Hill who won gold in 1996. And Calvin Hill is also a retired NFL player. So, let me ask, though, about, you know, the other side of it. There's a lot of discussion these days about whether we put too much emphasis on sports or too much pressure on kids playing sports whether we focus on one sport at too, you know, early of an age and that kind of thing. So I just wanted to ask each of you in the time that we have left, after parenting young people who've gone on to achieve excellence, do you have - but who are also appreciated for being, you know, well-rounded people.

So, Calvin Hall, I'll start with you. In fact, Grant was sometimes, you know, teased for being too good, you know, too good, sort of unattainably good for some people's minds. Do you have some thoughts or advice about how to steer young people appropriately who have a gift for sports but in a way that helps them come up in a way that other people can appreciate and where they relate well to other people and are appreciated and have a life after sports?

HILL: Well, I think the most important thing, you know, when they're young is, you know, to make sure that they have fun. I mean, you know, I think back to when I was a kid and you went out and you played. And you had fun. And, you know, so, you know, you want to make sure that, you know, that they're in a situation where the coaches, you know, don't become too serious too early. I mean, Grant wanted to play football early on. And I took him to a Pop Warner practice. And, you know, the coach thought he was Vince Lombardi. And, you know, when I saw that, I decided that was not the person I wanted around my child. I - you know, my wife and I encouraged him to play. You know, he did lots of different kinds of things. And we were always very supportive. But, you know, the most important thing was to make sure that, you know, you enjoyed what you were doing.

And I think the thing we've been most mindful of at every step is to make sure that whoever he's around and whoever is coaching him, whoever's leading him, you know, is somebody that shared some of our values. You know, winning is important. Obviously, you know, competition's extremely important. But there are values that are important. And, you know, we were very, very fortunate, you know, starting from when he first started playing, you know, basketball and soccer that the people who coached him, you know, at high school - his high school coach, certainly in college, you know, Coach Krzyzewski, they all, you know, had similar values. You know, honesty was important.

MARTIN: Debbie Phelps, what about you? What about you? Do you have some advice for other parents who are trying to navigate this question of, you know, fostering athletic excellence but not letting that be the child's whole world?

PHELPS: Well, I'd like to speak twofold, one as a former principal in Baltimore County and second as a parent. I wanted to make sure that sports, athletics and academics went hand-in-hand. I also wanted to make sure that all three of my children, who were nationally and internationally and collegiately ranked, that they had a balance in their life, that they were able to experience a variety of various activities whether it be athletics, whether it be instruments, whether it be art, whether it be boys and girl scouts. But I wanted to make sure that they were well-rounded. And then from that point to be able to decide where they wanted to generate their energy and what they wanted to do.

I remember in 1996 after Michael's sister Whitney did not make the Olympic team, and Coach Bob Bowman came into town to coach at North Baltimore Aquatic Clubs - Club. And he sat down with Michael's dad and myself, and he started laying out Michael's next 12 years of his life. And I paused, and I looked at him as he said, you know, 2000 here, 2004, 2008, 2012. I said you're crazy, Bowman. And he looked at me, and he's like it could happen. I said, I have an 11-year-old middle school young man who is very energetic and wants to do everything. And he said, I'm just putting an opportunity on the table. He said we'll keep the household normal, and we will keep the expectations high. If it happens, it will happen. If it doesn't, it will not. And we will not celebrate it each and every day.

MARTIN: How did Michael take that?

PHELPS: Well, it was very interesting. When we came down from that meeting, first thing he asked me was like, mom, am I in trouble? And I'm like, no, Michael. You aren't in trouble. Coach Bowman just wanted to talk to us about, you know, some possibilities that could occur within your life - never really mentioned the word Olympics. And during our conversation throughout the rest of the weekend where he was playing lacrosse, he was doing soccer, he was doing baseball and swimming all at one time, I said, Michael - I said, you know - I said, Coach Bowman told your father and myself that you are very talented in this sport.

But you need to consider all the different sports you are playing. Are you willing to give any of those up? So again, when I mentioned about decision-making, I had Michael to be part of the decision-making process to be able to talk to him openly, to be able to share information with him, and for him to be able to make a list of pros and cons as to what could happen and what couldn't happen. And he eventually gave up his lacrosse, his soccer and his baseball, and he focused all on the sport of swimming.

MARTIN: Calvin Hill, we only have a couple minutes left. Do you think that it helped that you had your own life and your own success? I mean, I heard you say once that, you know, Grant didn't have the pressure of buying his mama a house. You bought him a house. You bought his mama a house. You didn't - do you think it helped you to kind of set those boundaries because you'd had your own success and your own life?

HILL: Well, I think possibly. You know, I never, you know - I mean, the fact that Grant was able to play basketball and to go to Duke and to play at a national level there and then go into the NBA was a complete surprise to me. You know, and part of it was I never wanted him to feel like he had to do it because his dad did it. You know, when he made his choices, you know, they were things that he wanted to do. You know, I always tell the story that, you know, I was a big Carolina fan. And I wanted him to go to - you know, I mean, I liked - I loved Dean Smith because Dean was so important in the integration of the ACC and was a very progressive man - is a very progressive man. And I liked that. And he chose to go to Duke. And, you know, it was his choice. And once...

MARTIN: Have you forgiven him yet?

HILL: No. Well, you know, I have. I mean, I have. I mean, you know, it was his choice. And, you know, there were good times and there were tough times. But, you know, he always knew it was his choice. And, yeah, it worked out pretty well for him.

MARTIN: It did.

HILL: But I think the key is, you know, just allow them to do what they want to do and to be supportive. But also to make them understand that once they make a commitment to a team or to go to a school, they must honor that commitment...

PHELPS: So true.

HILL: ...You know, those certain values.

PHELPS: So true.

MARTIN: Debbie - Debbie, what about you? You - as you mentioned, you were a highly regarded principal in your own right. In fact, we have one of your former students among us here who's waving at you. You can't see him. But what about that? I mean, on the one hand, the logistics of managing three kids and all those sports and your own career - we only have about a minute and a half left - but I'd like to, you know, ask - you have some thoughts about that, how you managed to do all that?

PHELPS: It's all about team. I mean, we all worked together. I mean, on top of that, I even went back and get my master's during that time. So I was kind of this crazy person that decided to do all those things. But, you know, you can do whatever you put your mind to. I know that's kind of an old cliche. But if you are focused and you work together and you share information and you love each other and you support each other, you can do anything you put your mind to.

MARTIN: Did you ever feel..

PHELPS: And it can be...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Did you ever feel you had to get your own ego out of the way?

PHELPS: No. I thought, you know - no. I was successful in my schoolhouse. And my children knew my love for my children that I had in my schoolhouse. I often said that my school was my fourth child I never had. So I took great pride in that. But I also took pride in each of my children's accomplishments. And I'm always there on the sideline making sure that they see me and that they know that I love them and I follow them and I'm supporting them 100 percent - the same with my granddaughter...

MARTIN: All right.

PHELPS: ...And grandson.

MARTIN: I hate to ask, but can they swim?

PHELPS: They do swim. But my granddaughter is a really great little cross-country runner at 7 years of age. So maybe she'll do a triathlon. I don't know. But yes, they do swim at Michael Phelps Swim School.

MARTIN: All right. Well, maybe we'll be seeing them at a future Olympics. No pressure, though.

PHELPS: No pressure.

MARTIN: No pressure at all.

PHELPS: No pressure. Enjoy life.

MARTIN: Debbie Phelps is the mom of Olympian Michael Phelps. She's also author of "A Mother For All Seasons." She's a mom of three. She was with us from WEAA in Baltimore. Calvin Hill is the father of former NBA star and Olympian Grant Hill. He was kind enough to join us here in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

HILL: Thank you.

PHELPS: You're most welcome.

MARTIN: And congratulations. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.