Nicole Phelps is a Renaissance woman in the most progressive sense of the term. Aside from her substantial role as the Rock of Gibraltar wife to Michael Phelps, she is conscientiously raising the couple’s three young boys, Boomer (5), Beckett (3) and Maverick (20 months). The world fell in love with Boomer at the Rio 2016 Olympics as he sat on Nicole’s lap with his headphones on – joining in the excitement of watching his dad enter the history books as the greatest Olympic athlete of all time. As the world looked on, the scene looked picture perfect, but Nicole was one of the few people privy to the layers of complexity surrounding the overwhelming achievements of the man she loved.
This powerhouse woman’s story began in our neighborhood. Nicole attended Westlake High School – graduating in 2003. She remembers those days with fond memories:
“I was on the dance team my freshman, sophomore, junior year, and I loved competing. In my senior year, I was a cheerleader so I was part of the excitement surrounding the football and basketball teams. It was such a fun school. I lived in Westlake Village until I went to USC, and came back frequently as my mother still lives there.”
Armed with oceans of talent and a strong work ethic, Nicole attained the grades necessary to earn her a place at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism where she graduated with honors. Thereafter, she began a successful marketing career.
“In the spring of my sophomore year”, Nicole explains, “I was accepted, to the only college I applied to, the University of Southern California, and I studied communications with the emphasis of my degree in the sports industry. My goal was to graduate and work in sports. I loved the sense of community that SC brings. I enjoyed all I learned about marketing and communication including being able to speak my voice, and conveying the meaning behind a message effectively. One of my favorite professors was Stacy Smith, and she had started doing gender research within the entertainment industry. While working with her, it was fascinating to learn about the gender biases that were embedded in the film industry, at that time particularly in the top 100 G-rated films. When I graduated in 2007, Professor Smith, along with Geena Davis and the See Jane Project, were ahead of the wave that followed – the Me Too movement. Professor Smith’s valuable work now also includes studies on mental health portrayal within the entertainment industry.”
We discuss why the topic of mental health has been suppressed in society for so long, and Nicole offers these thoughts:
“There’s such a stigma attached to mental health. It’s worldwide – not just in this country. We’ve all been taught as a society that crying is a sign of weakness; that admitting you are having a bad day will incur judgment. So, it’s not surprising that we convey those sentiments to our children. Every parent and caregiver wants to do the right thing, but we subconsciously and consciously encourage our children not to cry – and to put on a brave front. We do this particularly with boys. I believe that the effects of coping mechanisms go back to when a baby is in the womb.”
I was discovering in our conversation that Nicole’s DNA is filled with reservoirs of determination. She was crowned Miss California in 2010 after being runner-up in a previous year. She refused to give up and entered the competition three times to attain her goal. Before that, she won the Miss California Teenager pageant, and she recalls having very positive memories from that experience.
“I loved how I felt on stage,” Nicole enthuses. “Winning the title provided me so many opportunities. I could springboard forward and use the platform to convey important messages. Pageants do have power, in the sense that they boost one’s self esteem. All those things I found to be valuable.” Nicole’s message to other young girls was about the vital value of education in life, and finding beauty from within – not just on the surface.
Nicole met Michael in 2007 in and out of the windows of her pageant career. It was a year before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Michael was at the ESPN ESPY Awards and Nicole was working at the event. The attraction was instant.
Nicole met Michael in 2007 in and out of the windows of her pageant career. It was a year before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Michael was at the ESPN ESPY Awards and Nicole was working at the event. The attraction was instant.
“We met,” Nicole recounts with a smile, “and ended up spending the whole evening together. And here we are today!”
Nicole explains that she had some knowledge of mental health issues but it was Michael’s experience that really accelerated her accumulation of knowledge.
“I didn’t really get it until I saw Michael going through his struggles,” she says. “When we were in it from 2007 to 2008, the pattern was this massive buildup towards the Olympic Games, and then Michael would come back from the Games and sink into this massive lull. You could tell that there was a lull because he was always chasing something. It would take quite some time before we really had an understanding of it, and I don’t think there was ever room to fully understand it because Michael would not take a second to stop. He couldn’t. I found that being with him meant that I had to move forward because the clock kept ticking towards the next goal. It was always about the next meet, the next World Championships, the next Olympics. There was this constant motion forward.”
Nicole continues, “Tragically, it took the greatest Olympian of all time – Michael Phelps – to come out and speak in 2015 about the mental toll that his Olympic life had taken, and even when he did that, the United States Olympic Committee had no grasp of how serious this was. When an Olympian completes their time in their sport there is no support. For many, this means no health insurance, employment or income. These athletes have nobody to assist them as they transition to another life. The sports organizations wave goodbye to them and cut the ties – even though the athletes have represented their country and brought them fame, distinction and revenue. I was never in the Olympics and could never possibly compare my path to that of Olympians, but I do recall experiencing severe depression when I returned home from the Miss USA competition. There was this anti-climactic ‘what do I do next’ feeling. I was, if you will, supposed to win Miss USA and live in New York for a year, but that didn’t happen, and the adjustment was huge. Because Olympians exist in this one-dimensional capsule – training for four years – their adjustment is even more significant. All Michael had ever known since age twelve was swimming, so it’s understandable how it accounted for so much meaning for him.”
Nicole learned she was pregnant with Boomer in the year leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. “From the second I was pregnant, I knew that Boomer and I came second to Michael’s swimming. I understood that. But the problem was that Michael needed help after Rio 2016, and the support wasn’t there. It takes so much mental resilience to be an Olympian, and once it’s over, Michael was mentally drained – completely spent. He had given his life to five Olympics with an intensity level that was all consuming. The incredible thing is that his last Olympics was five years ago – and yet we are still coming out of it. To me, Michael has still not yet processed his entire career. He’d been on a cyclical four-year roller-coaster, and you can tell – from a cellular level how his body has to amp itself up to meet the massive demands. That’s not even his brain – it’s just his body. Then you add to that the uncertainty after Rio of ‘what do I do with my life now?’ and it’s daunting, and I can so appreciate where he gets stuck. He tells himself that all he is – is just a swimmer.”
I ask Nicole if she noticed anything in particular in 2015 – a year before Michael was training to make history.
“Michael went into a rehabilitation center at the end of 2014, but what I noticed for the first time was that there was something positive: he was actually swimming for himself. Back in 2008, I had seen the joy and pleasure he gained from swimming, but I also noticed the grind. We were living together in 2007 and 2008 as Michael was going into Beijing, and we were living together in 2015, 2016 before he went to Rio. It was two different Michaels. Back in 2008 he was hyper focused on his goals, and becoming the first Olympian to ever win 8 gold medals in a single games. By Rio, he was still focused, but I felt there was a different pressure. He’d decided that he was going to achieve what he did at Rio because he wanted to do it for himself. It was the first time I saw the sheer enjoyment of swimming come through for him. Back in 2008, each night after winning we would chat on the phone, and it was amazing to me to listen to the mindset of not really giving himself credit for what he had just accomplished but rather a forward movement onto the next goal. Rio just felt different.”
Nicole talks about Boomer’s birth with firm conviction: “I think Boomer entered the world when he did (2016) because he was supposed to. He wasn’t planned; he just decided that he needed to join our family, and I know for sure that his birth was more beneficial than it was a hindrance to Michael. Just like all new parents, both Michael and I struggled with the adaptation of there being another person in our lives. It wasn’t just us any more. Boomer was critically important in helping Michael to move towards the next phase of his life post Olympics – as a father and husband.”
Nicole continues, “After Rio, Michael was still on a ‘high’ because of what he had achieved, the knowledge of retirement and the joy of the continued travel after the Games. We took Boomer everywhere with us as we celebrated. We visited China, France – our schedule was packed, and Boomer was a well-traveled baby. We were a family and I know that was helpful.”
“Every night we have family dinner, and it’s one of our favorite events of the day. We go around the table and everybody has to share something that happened in the day. It’s important quality time because we get to learn about each other, and what was meaningful that day to each individual.”
Our conversation veers towards the powerful philanthropic work that forms a major part of Nicole’s and Michael’s lives. The Michael Phelps Foundation was started in 2008. Its primary focus back then was water safety, healthy living, and the pursuit of dreams. Nicole explains, “Michael started talking about his struggles maintaining his own mental health in 2015. Since then he’s been a strong advocate helping others get help. The Michael Phelps Foundation has evolved with Michael and now Mental Health is a big component of the Foundation.”
Nicole is hugely dedicated to the Foundation’s success, and they have been strategic in their collaborations and partnerships. The Foundation’s IM program is implemented in Boys & Girls Clubs and Special Olympics teams and has reached over 100,000 people around the world with their life-saving programming. In 2020, the Foundation committed to continuing education surrounding mental health and provided over 90,000 social emotional lessons to those that needed it most. The Foundation Board and Staff (including Michael and Nicole) completed the National Council for Behavioral Health’s “Mental Health First Aid Training” program last spring.
On the topic of water safety, Nicole recalls how Michael’s swimming career began.
“Michael started swimming initially at age seven because his mom wanted to make sure that he and his sisters were water safe. That was the only objective back then. It was only when he turned twelve that his coach, Bob Bowman (whom the family refer to as ‘grandpa’), sat down with Michael and his parents. He told them that if Michael focused on swimming exclusively, he had the talent and potential to not only make the Olympic team but also win a gold medal.”
The quintessential Wonder Woman, Nicole’s schedule is packed. When you consider that she is raising three young boys who are in in the first five years of their lives, the commitment and self-sacrifice is significant. Nicole describes her weekly schedule like this:
“I’m always checking in with the Foundation; where we are headed; what’s going on. Can we make something better? That’s one of my major priorities during the week. Taking care of three young kids is a ton of work. Boomer and Beckett are in pre-school so I’m shuttling the boys to where they need to be. Maverick is beyond his years because he has two older brothers showing him the ropes all day. For instance, this morning we went on a nature walk, and everybody gets to find a prize – that might be a rock. Today Maverick decided he could climb all the boulders and place rocks in his pockets, like his brothers. It’s a great way to be with the boys in the outdoors, and we love the stimulating and energizing time we spend on our nature walks.”
“Then, three times a week, Michael and I are lifting weights,” Nicole continues. “We’ve learned that twenty minutes of strength training decreases anxiety, and I know that it’s vital for Michael and I to be in the gym. Case in point: two nights ago, we had a really rough night. There were tears and people not wanting to be told what to do. I ended up going into the gym later, and the emotions I was feeling got left on the gym floor. It’s such a healthy outlet and so much better than going to bed worrying about stuff. I’m learning so much. In particular, I’ve learned that a bad day doesn’t last forever. Also, if Michael is having a bad day, I can’t be his therapist. I can’t fix Michael. If my boys or Michael are struggling, all I can do is hold space. I’ve also become an expert at removing myself from a situation that I can’t fix. It takes stepping back. We don’t know what tomorrow holds and we don’t have all the answers now.”
“On the days when I feel that I am drowning and in over my head, I know to step back, and recognize that this too shall pass. I’ve also learned that we tend to be very hard on ourselves – blaming ourselves and imagining that we’ve somehow failed. My first stage of growth was with Michael in the rehabilitation center. I came out of family week a different person. I learned a lot about myself and I gained self-confidence I didn’t know I lacked. With children I’ve learned so much more about myself and my hopes for them and how they perceive the world.”
Motherhood is a role that Nicole clearly relishes, and she is a well-respected “Mommy Advocate.” She works to bring awareness to the challenges of motherhood by sharing her personal experiences through content campaigns, social media platforms and speaking engagements. Nicole has been enormously generous in sharing her pregnancy and birth stories, and particularly her experience with cholestasis during pregnancy – a liver condition that can cause severe itching and other symptoms, and carries the risk of serious complications including stillbirth. Critically important during this time was having a dedicated birth team who came equipped with knowledge and experience.
“The best advice I can give,” says Nicole, “for both moms-to-be and moms – is to listen to your instincts. You 100% know what’s best for you and your child. While being pregnant, try not to stress about the future and what it should look like. Once you have the baby, love and spoil him/her as much as you can. It’s not going to damage them in any way! I want all moms to feel empowered in the knowledge that they instinctively know what is best for their baby. If your baby wants to sleep on your chest – let him. That’s obviously what he needs in that moment. We get lost in all the messaging. Follow your instincts. I know that I have really come into it after three kids. I was told to either stop breastfeeding after three months or not breastfeed at all for various reasons, and it was all so conflicting and overwhelming. In the end, I did what I felt was right.”
“For both moms-to-be and moms – listen to your instincts. You 100% know what’s best for you and your child. While being pregnant, try not to stress about the future and what it should look like. Once you have the baby, love and spoil him/her as much as you can. It’s not going to damage them in any way!”
The Phelps family days are filled with everyone animatedly interacting, and there’s also much humor.
“Every night we have family dinner,” Nicole recounts, “and it’s one of our favorite events of the day. We recently started these, and what we do is go around the table because Boomer and Beckett now fully engage with us. We even speak for Maverick and he’ll correct us! Everybody has to share something that happened in the day. It’s important quality time because we get to learn about each other, and what was meaningful that day to each individual. I remember taking the boys to the aquarium and I saw a crocodile that I loved and thought it would be Beckett’s favorite memory, but Beckett saw a spider, and that was the definitive highlight of his visit! We do our best to never put pressure on our boys. They are allowed to be who they are. There are parents around us who have started their kids in sport at a very young age, and we have chosen to not feel the pressure of that.”
“Needless to say, all three boys are comfortable in the water. Our focus is safety first. We don’t want the pool to have a negative connection but we want them to be safe. We teach them to never go near the pool alone, the same way we teach them not to cross the street without an adult. We have many layers of protection such as a fenced pool and alarms.”
On the topic of how mom and dad will respond should Boomer, Beckett or Maverick decide to pursue a swimming career, Nicole responds with laughter.
“It won’t be difficult for me. I’ll be chuckling in the background, but I know it will be very difficult for Michael. We are highly supportive of our boys following their dreams and passions, but the difficulty will be Michael crossing the bridge with huge expectations. We don’t want the boys to feel the pressure of achieving his heights. What’s been really interesting is watching Michael’s communication about swimming change. He is so detail oriented – a savant when it comes to numbers. The way that his mind processes the physics of a stroke is beautiful. It’s fascinating to me to listen to Bob and Michael discuss numbers within swimming. Mind you, I am not a swimmer, so maybe this is normal but I love listening to them discuss stroke counts, splits, to knowing what a swimmer will go to a hundredth of a second. Or memorizing times from almost every single meet Michael has ever competed in, and even times other competitors accomplished. I just feel Bob and Michael together added a different layer.”
Nicole describes her favorite indulgence:
“Spending time with the kids, and playing golf with Michael. We have a place in Cabo, and we golf every single day there. I also love it when we are all just in our backyard together – laughing. I love it when Michael is able to be a little kid again with the boys. He plays ball with them and it’s great to watch. The other day, Beckett got a new set of golf clubs, and when we got home, Boomer was following Beckett around saying, ‘Beckett, Beckett, Beckett’. Just then, Beckett turned around to his big brother and said, ‘Boomer: I’m not listening today!’ Glimpses of their little characters coming through are a delight to watch.”
We chat about the Phelps’ traveling, and Nicole supplies the details: “Boomer and Beckett have traveled outside of the USA; Boomer during 2016, and Beckett to the Ryder Cup in France. One of my favorite memories for Beckett was his first taste of French Fries, which he loves still to this day. He tried them at a café outside of the Louvre.”
“Definitely on the bucket list for Michael and I,” says Nicole, “is Big Sur. We so want to go there. There’s something so magical about being up there.”
“Tragically, it took the greatest Olympian of all time – Michael Phelps – to come out and speak in 2015 about the mental toll that his Olympic life had taken, and even when he did that, the United States Olympic Committee had no grasp of how serious this was.”
Nicole intersperses delightful family stories with her hopes and dreams – but she always comes back to societal responsibility. Her commitment to mental health advocacy is of paramount importance to her, and her expertise on mental health issues grows every year.
“Much as Michael and I are committed to doing as much as we can to help people with mental health challenges,” she says, “the difficulty for Michael is that he’s so used to quantifiable measurements of success being immediately tangible. In swimming, his success is measured within a few minutes. Mental health goal accomplishments are very different. Our reach is intangible, and that’s the huge adjustment, particularly for Michael.”
“What both Michael and I have really learned on our journey is that it’s ok to feel avalanched. It’s ok to cry. Happiness 24/7 is impossible. In order to be happy, you have to have moments of sadness. As Michael says, ‘it’s ok not to be ok.’ We have to give ourselves grace, and affirm that feeling emotional isn’t a bad thing. In the last few months, not only did my family lose a very close friend, but we also lost a cousin to drug overdose. We have to allow ourselves time to grieve, because grieving is necessary. If you don’t allow those emotions to run their course, just like a boiling pot, they will eventually boil over. We also have to provide ourselves with grace to make mistakes. Shame is toxic, so we have to step back and acknowledge that it’s just a mistake, and prevent the shame from festering within.”
Nicole speaks passionately about their parenting style: “When our boys cry, we allow them to let it out, and for some observers, it’s startling. Giving them the space to express their emotions is vital. Children have to learn to be kind to themselves, because if they don’t learn that, how are they going to be able to treat others with kindness?”
Nicole has considerable empathy for families affected by mental health issues but she’s accrued a vast amount of first-hand experience and knowledge about the complexities of mental health, and how they affect families. Her belief in a strong support system is a critical part of the solution process.
As for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Nicole says, “The athletes have been through so much this past year. Their stress levels are high with all the uncertainty and the isolation caused by Covid-19. We have to reach out and take care of these athletes who are representing our country.”
Nicole’s unbreakable strength and resolve becomes illuminatingly evident when she says, “I firmly believe that Michael is going to change the face of mental health worldwide. I believe that he is going to achieve so much more out of the pool than in the pool. He’s already leaving a massive imprint helping others. The HBO documentary, ‘Weight of Gold’ was released last year, and its information base was crucial. Michael’s legacy will be much more than the Olympics. I’m absolutely sure about that.”
And I’m absolutely sure that Nicole Phelps is one of the strongest, most empathetic and talented women I’ve ever met. Her determination and resilience are evident in every aspect of her multi-faceted life. She is a true torchbearer who carries light and hope at the end of every tunnel – and that will be her powerful legacy.