updated 09/01/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/01/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
A few prerace, typo-filled texts from Mom helped Phelps achieve his other miraculous feat of late—rocking the world with a record eight gold medals at the Olympics. Speaking with PEOPLE in Beijing not long after the last of his victories—which eclipsed Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record of seven golds in a single Olympics and helped Phelps surpass Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers in the number of fans on his Facebook page—a relaxed and happy Phelps, 23, talked about the importance of having his mother and two older sisters, Whitney and Hilary, in the stands of Beijing's Water Cube. "We were sort of swimming every race with him," says Whitney, 28, a finance company recruiter and married mother of two. "It's been an emotional roller coaster, but we were able to have Michael come up to the railing and talk to him and give him words of motivation like, 'Great job!' or 'Two more!' We have a really close family and we come together to help each other out."
By now, everyone knows about Phelps' freak-of-nature physique, his flipper-like feet, his pterodactyl wingspan, his Homer Simpson diet (see pages 60-61). But the true revelation in Beijing was Phelps' softer, more human side. He was uncannily focused but not as moody as he has seemed in the past; he was mature and confident but also—just like his mom and sisters—a bit of a weeper during medal ceremonies. "We started working together when he was 11, so I've been through the whole spectrum with him, and he's become a fine young man," says his swim coach Bob Bowman, a father figure to Phelps, whose parents divorced when he was 9. (He and his dad, Fred, a retired Maryland state trooper, 58, "aren't estranged but they don't see each other on a regular basis," his mother, Debbie, told PEOPLE in 2004.) "I enjoyed how he handled himself from start to finish," says Bowman. "He was on-task the whole time, which was amazing under this kind of pressure."
After his last race Phelps fielded a phone call from President Bush (the big guy's message: Give your mother a hug) and, not much later, finally got to scoop up all of his medals. "I just had them all in my hands and I'm looking at them and ... it's pretty cool," he says, breaking into his trademark goofy grin. It's not too hard to imagine him as a skinny young kid, full of fire but so lacking in focus his teachers called his mother with their concerns. "We went through several years when we were just trying to capture his energy," says Debbie, who learned Michael had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, for which he took Ritalin during school hours. "His teachers would say, 'He can't focus on anything,'" recalls Debbie. "I'd say, 'Well, yes, he can. He can focus on the pool.' He was able to focus on what he loved."
Drawn to the water by his sisters—competitive swimmers when they were younger—Phelps was "a moody little guy," remembers Tom Himes, an early coach. Particularly after his parents' divorce, "he was a big crier when things didn't go his way." Other kids picked on him, tossing away his baseball cap or flicking at his big ears. "There was always something that I was, you know, made fun of for," Phelps told NBC. "It made me stronger." Once he teamed with Bowman, he never looked back, developing a monastic regimen summed up by his motto: Eat, Sleep and Swim. His six gold and two bronze medals at the 2004 Athens Games were just a prelude to Beijing—a total of around 14 minutes of finals pool time that was a lifetime in the making.
And now the fun begins. Phelps, who spent the last four years at the University of Michigan, can't wait to move back to his native Baltimore, where he bought a waterfront townhouse. Once pampered by his mom and sisters, he now "does his own laundry and shopping!" says Whitney, and dotes on his niece Taylor, 2, and nephew Connor, 6 months. "It's great to watch him become a great uncle. He spoils my kids."
What about spoiling himself? Phelps, who earns $5 million a year in endorsements and could now make up to 10 times that in the next year, isn't the type to let stardom go to his head. His only real indulgence, for instance, is his BMW 7 series ("Fully tricked out," he says. "Rims, TVs, tinted windows, the whole nine yards"). He won't say if he's seeing anyone special—it's not Eat, Sleep, Swim and Date, after all—but when he does bring someone home, his sisters will make sure it isn't just some gold-medal-digger. "We don't screen dates, but we are very protective," says Whitney. Debbie is already fielding offers. "There are girls who send photos, mothers who send photos of their daughters—it's spooky," she says. "I had a mother say to me in a restroom, 'My daughter is going to marry your son.'" Truth is, Phelps does have a mate back home. "Herman!" he says, referring to his beloved English bulldog. "I miss him so much. He'll still look at me the same way when I get back. He just sits there staring at me and I scratch his belly. I'm looking forward to that."
Phelps won't train seriously again until next year, when he'll likely compete at the World Championships in Rome—in part because his mom wants to go. "Well, I've never been there," she explains. Phelps also plans to swim at the 2012 Olympics in London. For now, his family is just happy he's coming home. "You have your children for 18 years and then you have to let go," says Debbie. "But Michael is putting the values from our home into his own life. He's embracing what he loves and he's having a great time. I'm just so proud of him."
Or as she might have put it in a text: Hey Michaell, ur phenomenl!! lol;)