"I was always the worst at getting out of bed," Phelps recalled Saturday at a breakfast fundraiser honoring mothers, organized by Debbie. "I would take a pillow and shove it over my face."
Without that extra push from his mother, now director of the Education Foundation for Baltimore County Public Schools, Phelps said, he would not have grown into someone widely regarded as the greatest competitive swimmer in history.
"I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without having her by my side and supporting me, and supporting us through everything we've been though," he said.
In attendance were mothers, grandmothers and female guardians of students at Title 1 schools in Baltimore and Baltimore County. State schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery and Katie Curran O'Malley, a District Court judge and wife of Gov. Martin O'Malley, also attended.
"It's what my mom does behind the scenes that really defines who she is," said Hilary Phelps. "Getting a call from a former family at her middle school saying 'I don't know what to do, my electricity is going to be turned off and I have to feed my kids, and I have to pick one, and I don't know.' And my mom getting in her car and buying groceries and personally delivering them to the family."
Whitney Phelps broke down in tears when she spoke about how she has found herself unintentionally imitating her mother's parenting habits.
Debbie Phelps, a longtime educator in Baltimore County who raised her children in Towson and sent them to public schools, took the helm as director of the foundation last summer. It awarded $35,000 in grants last year, up from $15,000 the year before, and expects to give out $45,000 in grants this year.
She said she thought it important to celebrate the bonds between mothers and their children.
"Through myself with Michael, there's been that visibility of the support and the love that I've given," Debbie said. "But moms do that. So we just want to recognize and celebrate each one of them for what they do."
Dozens of children and adults took pictures with and sought autographs from Phelps, his sisters and Jessica Long, a world record-holding Paralympic swimmer from Middle River. Some children had gold medals placed over their heads by Phelps or Long.
Gabby Rosati, 7, was nervous about meeting the Olympian, briefly ducking behind Emma DeSanti, 10, as they posed for pictures with him.
"I touched his hand!" Emma said after the encounter.
"Me too. It's warm," offered Gabby, all traces of apprehension gone.