They’ve become almost as well-known back home as their superstar swimming sons.
Debbie Phelps and Ike Lochte have been getting plenty of television time, cheering on Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte during their medal-winning performances at the London Olympics.
Debbie Phelps has lots of experience with the Olympic whirlwind. After all, her 27-year-old son is competing in his fourth and last games before retiring. But it wasn’t until returning from Beijing four years ago, when Phelps won a record eight gold medals, that she realized the impact all that TV time had in the U.S.
”I would be in airports or train stations and people would recognize me, even little kids,” Phelps told The Associated Press on Friday.
Ike Lochte had a lower profile leading up to these games, where her oldest son won five medals, including two golds.
”I’m a nervous wreck all the time and that’s why you never see me,” she said. ”I’m always hiding.”
Both women have gotten emotional watching their sons’ races in London. For Phelps, her son’s retirement on Saturday marks the end of years of being a swimming parent. Michael’s oldest sister, Hilary, got started in the sport first, then sister Whitney followed. Michael was too young to be left at home so he tagged along to their meets in Baltimore.
”Swimming was such an integral part of our home,” Phelps said. ”Sometimes I think he had no choice.”
In Daytona Beach, Fla., Lochte and her former husband Steve both coached young swimmers, paving the way for Ryan to get started in the sport. He had broken age-group records and earned national rankings by the time he was 10.
”He never knew it,” she said.
Except for his prizes from the Olympics and world championships, Lochte gives away the medals he wins to young swimmers at meets.
”That’s what I’m really proud of,” his mother said.
Lochte’s generosity and his willingness to sign autographs and pose for photos when asked is the result of him being blown off by an Olympian when he was about 10. His mom had encouraged him to go ask the backstroker, whom she wouldn’t name, for an autograph.
”He said no to Ryan and that crushed him,” she recalled during a visit to the P&G House in London, where moms of Olympians are being hosted during the games.
Phelps raised her son and two daughters as a single mom after divorcing her husband Fred, who has been largely absent in his only son’s life. Lochte and her husband divorced last year, although he was in London to watch Ryan compete.
Phelps gets approached by a lot of single moms wanting advice.
”I have no advice for them,” she said during a promotional visit to a Subway on Oxford Street in the heart of London’s shopping’s district. ”I just supported my family, I was a strong mother. That’s what I tell single parents who come to me: Just be strong, support your kids, don’t let go of their hands right away.”
Phelps’ constant presence at her son’s meets during his Olympic career stems from missing one in Austin, Texas, where Michael set his first world record in the 200 butterfly as a 16-year-old.
He told her about his achievement in a call home that night.
”I started crying. He was like giggling almost,” Phelps recalled. ”It was so magical to me. I felt bad that I wasn’t there.”
On his way to becoming the most decorated Olympian ever this week with his 17th gold and 21st medal overall, Phelps’ fame has provided his mom and sisters with opportunities. Debbie stars in a Subway commercial with her son that dovetails with her advocacy for healthy eating, and appears in clothing ads. Hilary has launched her own website.
”It’s been a great journey for all of us,” she said.
Phelps isn’t worried about what her 27-year-old son will do with his life after his final Olympic race on Saturday night.
”He needs time for himself first, then I feel that he will go into who knows?” she said. ”There’s a lot of great people who have mentored him and supported him who will continue to do that to find what his little niche is going to be next.”
Her son endured some very public stumbles involving drunken driving and a marijuana pipe after Athens and Beijing, incidents the family refers to as ”lightning bolts.”
”I just continue keeping one foot on his foot whenever I can and feed him information as his mother,” Phelps said. ”I think he’s going to be fine.”
Phelps said she and her family are still processing Michael’s historic achievement in Beijing, so it will be a while before they can reflect on the milestones he accomplished in London.
”I hope we have a lot of snow this winter and we get in front of the fireplace and just tell experiences that we’ve all had,” she said.