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Michael Phelps, ADHD Olympian

Does this sound like a kid you know?

He was always full of energy. He’d talk constantly, and ask questions nonstop. He also had trouble focusing in school, and his teachers said they couldn’t get him to interact during learning time. He was always pushing, nudging, shoving, and fidgeting. It was hard for him to listen unless it was something that really captivated his attention, so you can imagine what bedtime was like!

Or does this sound like your parent-teacher conferences?

Starting with preschool, teachers complained: Michael couldn’t stay quiet at quiet time, Michael wouldn’t sit at circle time, Michael didn’t keep his hands to himself, Michael was giggling and laughing and nudging kids for attention.

Deborah Phelps has been very forthcoming about her extraordinary son’s school struggles (she is also now a paid spokesperson for Ortho-McNeil-Janssen, makers of Concerta, an ADHD medication). In a world where we like our heroes perfect (just before we tear them down) I applaud her for providing a peek into Michael’s upbringing. It doesn’t sound easy:

She will never forget one teacher’s comment: “This woman says to me, ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything.’ ”

His grades were B’s and C’s and a few D’s.

It was a tough period. Ms. Phelps and her husband, a state trooper, were divorcing. She had just gone back to school to get a master’s degree to become an administrator, she said, and at the same time she had to be the 24/7 parent.

Michael grew like crazy, but not evenly — his ears looked huge, and when he ran, his arms swung below his knees. (He was on his way to being 6 feet 4 inches tall with an arm span of 6 feet 7 inches.) Kids bullied him, and when he whacked one on the school bus, he was suspended from the bus for several days.

It’s hard to believe that the beautiful creature who has surpassed every other Olympic athlete could have been teased for his looks, and been told he would never focus. (!) But Michael’s story, which is also Deborah’s story, gives me hope: that every child might find her passion somewhere, and that we can create a society where every child’s passion can find an outlet.

For every child, regardless of the labels society is eager to affix: You are not your diagnosis.

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