Succeeding with ADHD: The Michael Phelps Story

Succeeding with ADHD is no easy feat. Michael Phelps’ success story is part of our efforts to raise awareness about ADHD.


succeeding with adhd


Swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. Some would call him the greatest athlete in history. He has appeared in four Olympic events (2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016) in which he won a total of 28 Medals – 23 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze. The second-ranking athlete has 18 medals. And this is just the Phelps’ Olympic record.


Michael began swimming at age 7, along with his two older sisters. One would imagine he just dived into the water and the rest was history – but, no that is not how it went down. Michael recalls throwing a tantrum. His mother commented on how he hated getting his face wet. But once he understood swimming, there was no looking back.


It is common knowledge that Michael Phelps has ADHD. He was diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental disorder at age 9. The signs had always been there. His preschool teachers always complained about Michael – he wouldn’t sit during circle time, didn’t keep his hands to himself, often giggled, laughed and poked other children. He was a handful. Michael was also bullied at school. As Michael grew older, the problems didn’t vanish. He achieved mostly Bs, Cs and some Ds. He didn’t enjoy reading, so his mother gave him sports news to read as that was his interest. Michael’s mother, Debbie recalls that one teacher told her: ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything’. The words broke Debie’s heart, but she didn’t quit. Swimming became Michael’s refuge. He played different sports to burn off his excessive energy, but the pool spoke to him.


A visit to the doctor, when Michael was 9 changed his life. An assessment resulted in an ADHD diagnosis. The doctor prescribed Ritalin – a stimulant used for hyperactivity (note: not all children with ADHD require this medicine). “I simply couldn’t sit still, because it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time”, Phelps wrote in his book Beneath the Surface: My Story. He spoke too fast and couldn’t make eye contact. During an interview with, he stated that he “was constantly bouncing off the walls” at school.


Michael still struggled at school, his grades got a little better. His journey was still beginning. While school was a grind, Michael excelled in swimming. His mother recognized where her son’s strengths lay. So she focussed on that. Debbie’s efforts and hard work began paying off – Michael found his true calling. By age 10, Michael became a nationally ranked swimmer. There was no going back. By age 13, Michael gave up Ritalin, determined to make his own way. Swimming had started as an outlet for Michael’s boundless energy. It became his strength and helped him overcome his ADHD symptoms.


His success could be attributed to Michael’s single-minded pursuit of what he wanted and his mother’s unwavering support. Debbie’s success as a parent wasn’t based on Michael’s grades – it was providing the best opportunities for her son with ADHD.


Years later, in an interview, Michael said, “I think the biggest thing I always said was, anything is possible. I put my mind on doing something no one has ever done before, and nothing was going to stand in my way”. Michael didn’t let an ADHD diagnosis stand in his way, neither did his mother. For many parents, their child’s diagnosis is a death knell: they stop believing their child can achieve great things. The takeaway in Michael Phelps’ story is the mother’s resolve and determination to see her through it.


Many parents focus on their child’s poor grades, inappropriate behaviour – their failings. The key lesson to remember is to focus on strengths. Not all children are cut out for academic excellence. But if parents and educators were to focus on a child’s strengths, they would unlock their child’s potential and set them up for future success, regardless of ADHD.


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