Michael Phelps is fidgeting. A crowd of reporters swarms around him as he stands beneath the hoop of an indoor basketball court at Chelsea Piers in New York City. They pepper him with questions amid the constant strobe of camera flashes, hoping to catch the champ’s attention. They are all asking variations of the same question: “What’s next?” He’s been here before, and carries himself with the practiced grace of a man who’s carried a flag, and a country’s hopes, on his shoulders. But, “what’s next” clearly isn’t his concern.
What’s lost in the shuffle is his hands—hard to believe when you realize how enormous they are. They’re constantly moving; he’s wringing them out, playing with the straw in his iced coffee, and checking his phone in ceaseless rotation. As journalists maneuver in and out for a moment with the legendary athlete, he toggles between Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, to Michael Phelps, the brother, son, and man—he’s ribbing his sisters, chatting with his mother, and sizing up the guys playing basketball at the other end of the gym. The two almost seem to be at odds—the relentless, focused competitor juxtaposed with the gangly, fun-loving brother. Regardless of his current mode, however, one thing endures throughout—a pair of very busy hands.
Michael Phelps has ADHD. This is not news, but seeing it in person is an eye-opening experience. As a child, his mother, Debbie, would ensure every moment was scheduled with an activity to keep him focused: Schoolwork, meals, and practice kept him constantly engaged. “I was always the kid who was running around,” he says. “I literally couldn’t sit still.”
Phelps’ hometown of Towson, MD, has long been a hotbed for sporting talent, spawning gridiron greats like Don Shula and Johnny Unitas. Phelps’ own father was a star on the Fairmont State University football team in West Virginia, but the son never took to football. “My sisters and I, the decision was kind of left to us when it came to what we wanted to do,” he says. “I played baseball, lacrosse, and soccer, and I swam. The biggest sport was definitely lacrosse.” But when Phelps captured his first national record in the 100-meter butterfly in 1996—a record that stood until July 2012—the path suddenly became clear. He began working with coach Bob Bowman soon after, and a legendary union was born.
“He was the kid that never stopped talking, always had a ton of energy,” Bowman says. “But when he was swimming I never noticed that he was different [from the other swimmers] in terms of his focus or anything. It was probably the energy it took to swim, the environment of being in the water, and the fact that there weren’t any prolonged breaks once he got in. I’ve never thought, ‘Wow, this kid has ADHD; he can’t do this.’ I think that’s because swimming was a really good fit for him.” It’s a sentiment that the athlete himself acknowledges. “Being able to get in the water, I felt more relaxed,” Phelps says. “The more time I spent in the pool, the more relaxed I found myself. It was something that was exciting and challenging, so I decided to stick with it.”
Back in New York, Phelps takes a final pull from his iced coffee, flips through his phone one last time, and steals a quick private word with his mother and two older sisters, Whitney and Hilary. The interview is over, and it’s time for a rare glimpse into what some might call the “real” Phelps. The press scramble to set up their cameras on the running track encircling the court as the Phelps clan moves over to the staging area. Agents, press, and fans crane their necks to catch a glimpse of something as mundane as Michael Phelps getting ready to go for a casual jog. His hands are still at work, but now the movement seems more deliberate— he’s grabbing his heels, stretching his arms, and slapping fives with the few members of the media who’ve scored spots on the track with him. There’s looseness to his energy, but he’s moving with a purpose.
As the Phelpses line up together for a photo op, a snippet of a private conversation cuts through the air. Whitney is taunting her little brother ahead of the run to come. Michael laughs, and when the signal is given the team takes off , but the banter only heats up. As the group passes beneath a giant Un-der Armour banner bearing Michael’s likeness, the pair begins to pull away from the crowd, and then like a shot, Michael bolts. His sister laughs and speeds off after him. Cameras click furiously as photographers attempt to capture the nuances of sibling rivalry in a single frame.
Later, Phelps goes for a swim. Like the run, it’s more for show. Gym patrons are taking laps in the pool, and the vast majority of them don’t blink as he walks in and heads to the shower— at this point, he’s just another guy trying to squeeze in a workout on his lunch break. It’s only when the reporters scurry in that people take notice. A hush blankets the room and no one’s swimming anymore. Phelps slips into the water and his sisters follow suit, instantly giving everyone else in the pool an “I swam with Michael Phelps” anecdote that they’ll tell for the rest of their lives. Soon, the only sounds to be heard are the gentle bobbing of three heads in and out of the water and the metallic clicks of a dozen cameras as the siblings sail along. When Phelps completes his first turn and glides toward the end of the pool, life resumes. Conversations pick up, and the other swimmers get back to their laps.
As Phelps approaches the edge of the pool for a final photo op, he calmly rises out of the water, wipes his face, and lets his hands fall to his sides. For the first time since he’s arrived, his hands are still.