New Phelps Potgate Fallout: 'Swimming Moms'

Parents of young athletes who idolize Phelps have sharp words for wayward champ.

February 6, 2009, 3:58 PM

Feb. 6, 2009 -- Michael Phelps may have lost a major sponsor, the Kellogg Co., and received a three-month suspension by USA Swimming after the publication of a photo showing him inhaling from a marijuana pipe. But he may be just beginning to feel the wrath of some of his toughest critics: "swimming moms."

"I am absolutely appalled. Honestly, absolutely appalled, sickened and saddened," said Sherrie Peif, a Windsor, Colo., mother whose 12-year-old son, Braydon, is a swimmer. Peif said her son gets a sports-feed on his cell phone, so he first saw the photo one day at school during lunch.

"His initial reaction was he's still the greatest swimmer on the planet," said Peif, whose own response to the now-notorious "bong" photo was quite a bit different. "I would think anybody in his position would just stop and think about the consequences. He has thousands of young boys looking up to him ... and he's already made one major mistake. I just kept thinking, Didn't you learn from your last mistake?"

The mistake Peif is referring to is a 2004 arrest for driving under the influence that eventually led a then-19-year-old Phelps to plead guilty to drunken driving. Phelps apologized for his behavior and managed to put the bad press behind him.

Fast-forward to 2008, when Phelps rocked the swimming world by winning a record eight gold medals at the Olympics in Beijing and, as a result, became a hero and an inspiration to thousands of young swimmers across the country.

One of those young swimmers is 13-year-old Gretchen Cox. Cox is a member of the Rockwood Swim Club in Wildwood, Mo. Her mom, Michelle Cox, said Gretchen couldn't get enough of the Olympics, and Michael Phelps, last August.

"She was glued to the television. She had to be home at a certain time, and every night she would stream it live on her laptop," said Cox, who chronicles some of her daughter's swimming successes on her blog

After the photo surfaced, the whole Cox family sat down around the kitchen table to talk about the controversy.

"When we first saw the photo, we kept thinking, oh, maybe it isn't him. Then he confirmed it himself, and Gretchen just kept saying, "He is so stupid. He is so stupid," said Cox. Gretchen is currently at a swim meet in Plano, Texas, but before she left, her parents held up Michael Phelps as a cautionary tale, not as a hero.

"We told her look at this. One bad choice could keep the greatest swimmer ever from competing. Everyone is presented with choices all the time, and it's hard. … But sometimes if you make the wrong choice, it could mean your life," said Cox.

Dave Tonnesen, 40, couldn't be more of a "swimming dad" if he tried. He is a former USA Triathlon coach who now owns and operates SwimKids Swim School in Prince William County, Va., and teaches, along with a roster of coaches, about 1,000 kids a week how to swim. Before he retired, Tonnesen would see Phelps at local meets. Tonnesen's 12-year-old son,Tyler, is reading Phelps' book, "No Limits."

"You know from a coach standpoint you're like, 'Oh, gosh, it's disappointing,' but from a parent standpoint it's even more so. We actually talked about it when I drove them into school this morning. They asked me why would he do that? I told them he made a stupid mistake, and you have to be careful," said Tonnesen.

Tonnesen explained that reaction to the Phelps fallout seemed to depend on the age of the swimmer. "I am on Facebook with a lot of college groups, and it was allover Facebook. The 20-somethings were more like, let's move on. But the younger kids are more "he's our hero," said Tonnesen. "I think he has fallen off that pedestal somewhat. I think he's going to have to earn back people's respect."

Phelps is certainly going to have to work hard to earn back the respect of moms like Sherrie Peif.

Peif has no patience for the "he's just a kid sewing his wild oats" response of some of Phelps' swimming peers. Peif argued that Phelps is a 23-year-old man with millions of dollars in endorsement contracts and thousands of kids looking up to him.

"These are the people our kids want to grow up to be like, so, yes, they should be held to a higher standard."

The trouble is that may not be the way the kids themselves see it. Peif admits her own son is struggling to see things her way.

"I hate to say this, but I don't think it's going to matter. Carmelo Anthony, a Denver Nugget, who is a big sports hero in our area, was arrested for drunken driving and the kids still think he's great. … All they see is this great power and that Michael Phelps is an amazing athlete and now all the swimmers want to get nine gold medals instead of eight. That's what kids look at."