Fans who have been watching Michael Phelps and his mother celebrating throughout the 2016 Rio Olympics have been asking the same question: Where is Michael’s dad, Fred Phelps?
The most celebrated swimmer in Olympic history has also been one of the most public, often giving interviews about his upbringing and the role his mother played in his life. But the topic of his father has been one of the few Michael has refused to discuss at length, leaving many viewers turning to Google to ask “Who is Michael Phelps’ dad?” and “Why isn’t Fred Phelps at the Olympics?” In fact, the interest has gotten so large that searches for Michael Phelps’ father peaked on Thursday night after he won the 22nd gold medal of his illustrious career.
But there is a good reason why fans aren’t seeing Michael Phelps’ father at the Rio Olympics. The two have had a difficult relationship for more than two decades, dating back to when Michael’s parents split up when he was 9-years-old.
The couple’s 1994 divorce left his mother, Debbie Phelps, to raise Michael and his two sisters by herself. While Michael Phelps continued to have a relationship with his father for a few years, the two drifted more and more apart as Phelps’ swimming career took off, Earn the Necklace noted.
The relationship was strained to the point that Michael Phelps looked to his swimming coaches as father figures instead of his own dad.
“For me, not having a father always there was hard. I had Bob [Bowman], and I had Peter [Carlisle], these guys who acted as father figures,” Michael Phelps told Sports Illustrated last year. “But deep down, inside, it was hard. That was something that was a struggle for me to talk about for a long time, even with friends or my mother. Getting that off my chest in therapy was this huge weight off my shoulders.”
The situation actually led Michael Phelps to grow even closer to his mother, Debbie, who said she and the three kids all rallied together. It was not always easy, Debbie said, especially when all three kids were deep into competitive swimming.
“I had three kids at three different pools with three different practice times, and then at one point in my life, I just had to go back to college to get my degree,” Debbie said (via Heavy.com). “But I like to keep things hopping; it gives you excitement in your life. I’ve got a great group of friends around me, and we all supported each other.”
Debbie said Fred tried his hardest to be a good father, but the two continued to drift apart as Michael Phelps harbored increasing resentment. That came to a head in 2014, when Michael was arrested for DUI and went to a 45-day rehab visit. It was there that Michael began to confront his issues with his father.
“I felt abandoned. I have an amazing mother and two amazing sisters. But I would like to have a father in my life, and I’ve been carrying that around for 20 years,” Michael Phelps told Sports Illustrated. “That’s a long time. It does something to you. To a kid, especially.”
It was during the visit to rehab that Michael Phelps finally reached out to his father, asking if he would pay a visit. Fred Phelps didn’t hesitate.
The two met at the Arizona facility where Michael was receiving treatment, sharing a long talk and a hug. They started rebuilding the relationship from there, Michael said.
Michael Phelps is now a father himself, with his fiance giving birth to their first child, a boy named Boomer, just a few months before Michael left for Rio. It was a proud moment for Fred Phelps as well.
“I’m proud of the fact that he found himself and knows who he is now,” Fred told ESPN. “He sees now that there is a tomorrow way down the road. It’s real life. He’s going to be a human being. A father. A husband. A friend. He’s going to be a son.”
Although the two have a better relationship now, Michael Phelps’ father said he was unsure if he would make the trip to the Rio Olympics. To date, it appears Fred Phelps is staying away and letting his son have his moment in the spotlight.
[Photo by Matt Slocum/AP Images]