From ADHD Kid to Olympic Gold Medalist

How an Olympian beat ADHD and then beat the world's best swimmers

Posted Sep 04, 2012

When Michael Phelps was in the sixth grade, he was fidgety and had trouble paying attention in the classroom. His pediatrician diagnosed him with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. Michael took the medication for several years, and it seemed to help. At age 13, however, he decided that he was using the drug as a crutch, even though it did help make him less "jumpy" at school. He thought that if he applied his mind to controlling his behavior and focusing, he could help himself without taking pills. As he recalls in his autobiography No Limits, Phelps felt humiliated in front of his friends when the school nurse came to find him in class to remind him to take his Ritalin.

Michael weaned himself off the medication with his doctor's support, and learned to use the power of his mind to focus on his school work and control himself in the classroom. At this point, his teacher told his mother that her son would never succeed at anything because he couldn't focus on anything for a long enough time. His mother, too, was skeptical that her son could do well without the Ritalin. Defying his teacher's and his mother's grim predictions, Michael Phelps went on to become the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympics. He had found in vigorous and disciplined swimming a solution for the nervous energy that made him jumpy and fidgety.

In an interview, Phelps commented, "Your mind is the strongest medicine you can have...You can overcome anything if you think you can and you want to."

As I write in my recent book, Pills are not for Preschoolers, "Diagnoses like the one Michael Phelps received can even become self fulfilling prophecies. If a child is branded with the label of ADHD, parents, teachers, doctors and other family members will actually come to see that child as having ADHD...Like Phelps' mother, they will expect that the child needs medication to contol his behavior because they think he has a chemical imbalance or some such biologically based defect. The child himself will come to believe that he has a 'problem.'"

Of course Michael Phelps had an exceptional gift of athletic talent to boost his self-confidence to take control of his behavior and shake off the label of "ADHD." But even with his exceptional gifts, Phelps could not beat his ADHD diagnosis if it were truly a biologically-based disease or brain defect.

I think Michael Phelps' story is worth retelling because it can be an inspiration to children and parents who stand under the shadow of an ADHD diagnosis. Enrolling a boy in an active sport such as swimming, soccer, tennis, and so forth can go a long way in helping him get out his excess nervous energy. Other modifications to the child's life can also help—like limiting media stimulation, and deciding whether the child's teacher or school is a good "match" for his personality.

When parents are intimidated by a doctor's ADHD diagnosis, they believe that medication is the only solution and don't look for alternatives. This is the reason that 23 million prescriptions for ADHD medications are written each year for American children. What is truly tragic is that most parents do not realize that ADHD medications are simply amphetemines—more commonly known as "speed."

When my children were young, they loved hearing stories of young people who overcame adversity and achieved their hopes and dreams—like Terry Fox, Harriet Tubman, Johnny Appleseed. The story of Olympian Miacheal Phelps is just such a story.

Marilyn Wedge is the author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids (W. W. Norton and Company, August 27, 2012) and a new book on ADHD in the United States and abroad published by Penguin/Avery: A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic.

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