When he was in fifth grade, during his annual check-up, Ms. Phelps and the family physician, Dr. Charles Wax, discussed whether Michael might have A.D.H.D. — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. By then, the Phelpses were a swimming family. (Michael’s older sister Whitney at 15 was ranked first in the country in the 200-meter butterfly, though her career would be cut short by a back injury.) Dr. Wax’s children also swam, and he’d noticed Michael at the Phelps sisters’ swim meets. “Michael used to run around like a little crazy person mooching food off people,” said Ms. Phelps.
The doctor suggested sending assessment forms to his teachers. Their consensus: Can’t sit still, can’t keep quiet, can’t focus.
At age 9, Michael was put on Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat hyperactivity.
His mother thinks it helped a little. “He seemed to be able to focus longer,” she said. “He could get through homework without moving around so much.” She said he was still a middling student. “It might have raised some C’s to B’s,” she said. But if a homework assignment had to be at least four sentences, she said, “he’d just do four sentences.”
After two years, Michael asked to get off the meds. He had to go to the school nurse’s office to take a pill at lunch, she said, and felt stigmatized. “Out of the blue, he said to me: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, Mom. My buddies don’t do it. I can do this on my own.’ ”