How Michael Phelps Built His Adorable, Winning Family

While we'll certainly miss seeing Michael Phelps (and impossibly cute son Boomer!) at the postponed Summer Games, we'll settle for diving into his sweet, 13-year love story with bride Nicole Phelps.

By Sarah Grossbart Jul 23, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Related: How Ryan Lochte Finds Positivity In 2020 Olympics Cancellation

Right now, we should be gearing up to watch the Parade of Nations, dissecting what we do and don't like about the American uniforms and predicting who exactly would be the breakout star of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

But COVID-19 had other ideas.

The 2016 games gave us four-time gold medalist Simone Biles and the rest of gymnastic's final five. Also, swimmers Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, superhuman sprinter Usain Bolt and Tonga's shirtless and well-oiled flag bearer. 

But if we had to name just one person the world couldn't stop talking about four summers ago, well, we're kind of partial to Boomer Phelps. The firstborn son of the world's most decorated Olympian put on a master class in cuteness as he and mom Nicole Phelps watched Dad Michael Phelps compete. And cameras couldn't stop panning over to his smushy adorableness and oversize noise-canceling headphones. The then-3-month-old—who has an impressive 623,000 followers on Instagram—was suddenly everyone's favorite celeb, even sitting for an interview on the Today show. 

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Boomer Phelps' Cutest Moments

And while we're well aware there are far greater casualties of this year's canceled Games, with so many athletes devoting their entire existence to this once-every-four-years event, we're not going to lie, we're already kinda missing 4-year-old Boomer's tiny mug. 

Because while Phelps has definitely, absolutely, undoubtedly swam his last Olympics' heat, calling the chance to collect five gold medals and one silver with his bride and their baby watching from the stands "dream come true after dream come true," he most certainly would have been on hand in Japan. 

"We've been having some conversations about potentially going over and doing some work," the water safety and mental health advocate told NBC News last spring. "I'd like to take my family over, too....I'm excited just to see what it's going to be like sitting in the stands, watching my friends competing." 

In the four years since he last claimed a podium spot, his brood has expanded to five, the couple of more than a decade collecting sons at a rate just slightly slower than the swimmer once nabbed gold medals. Their latest, Maverick Phelps arrived just this past September, joining big brothers Boomer and Beckett Phelps, 2, and "instantly has stolen all of our hearts and keeps me an ecstatic mommy of boys," Nicole wrote on Instagram. "I can't wait to walk this journey surrounded by my men."

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Way back in 2007, it was just the one man by her side. The Olympian (already a six-time gold medal winner with a handful of world records to his name) has said "it was love at first sight" when they met on that July day and the newly minted University of Southern California grad was at least smitten enough to deviate from her planned life course.  

"I expected to be working in the sports field…my dream job would have been reporting on Formula One," she noted in a 2016 interview with Cosmopolitan. "That went out the window, obviously, when Michael and I started dating—his career essentially came first."

That's not to say the athlete wasn't supportive of her goals, turning up in Palm Springs in late 2010 to watch the former Miss California, a ninth place finisher for Miss USA, crown her successor. "I'm here for one reason and one reason only," Michael told E! News at the time. "Nicole." That he was willing to take time out from his rigorous pre-London Games training schedule meant a lot. "Michael is here supporting me and my family and it feels great," she said. "It's been great." 

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They just couldn't make the good times last. Just when things seemed to be going, you know, swimmingly, they'd hit a snag, splitting twice on their way to forever. 

"There definitely were times, and I think Michael would say the same thing, where I hated him," she confessed to Cosmopolitan, their third go-round at romance in 2014 proving to be the charm. "We were at odds at times." And, yet, she couldn't shake the feeling that just maybe he was end game: "Even when I loathed him, there were still times when I was like, 'God, I wish I was with him.'"

But, as many have learned the hard way, your early 20s and a steady, stable romance don't always mix. "It was definitely bad timing," she surmised of their false starts. "We both had a lot of growing up to do. We both had a lot of learning about ourselves to do. I don't think you can be in a good relationship unless you love yourself to the fullest and you want to help the other person become a better person. We definitely needed that time apart to recognize that about ourselves and to appreciate one another."

Agreed Michael, speaking to Access Hollywood that same year, "We both had to go through some things to get to the point where we are now in our life."

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Every Time Michael Phelps Has Won an Olympic Gold Medal

For the 28-time medalist that meant pushing through a rough patch that saw him arrested for driving under the influence in September 2014 and immediately checking into a six-week treatment program as he battled debilitating depression. "I was in a really dark place...not wanting to be alive anymore," he would later confess to Sports Illustrated, his experience inspiring him to take on the role of mental health advocate. 

"I was so down on myself," he told Today in 2018. "I didn't have any self-love and quite honestly, I just didn't want to be alive. It was a really, really, really crazy time for me and I didn't want to see anybody, because for me, I saw myself as letting so many people down and me, myself in particular, and that's hard to carry." Shutting himself up in a hotel room for three straight days, "I finally realized that I can ask for help and it's OK to not be OK and for me, that's what changed my life."

Michael Phelps/Instagram

He emerged from treatment a new man ("I'm back to being the little kid who once said anything is possible," he marveled to Sports Illustrated) with a new mission: get the girl. 

"I always said if I had the chance to get her back, she was the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with," he told Access Hollywood in that 2016 chat. So he worked up the nerve to reach out to the Los Angeles-area native, knowing full well she might decline his call. "I wanted just to tell her how I felt," he explained. "I didn't want to live my life without her and not have her know exactly how I felt."

He was prepared, no matter her response: "Either ready to move on or try it again," he said. "But I wanted to just express my feelings to her and that was something that changed our life and put us where we are today."

That place was a February 2015 engagement—Michael confirming the news with a straightforward, "She said yes"—and a head start on the family they wanted to have together. 

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Learning they were expecting Boomer proved to be a blessing in more ways than one, his May 2016 arrival meaning the entire brood could travel down to Rio for the athlete's swan song. 

A strong Zika presence in Brazil had them consulting with some five doctors, plus Boomer's pediatrician to ensure it was safe for the little guy, she told Cosmo, but "had we been in the position where we would have been looking to have children after the games, we would have taken a different approach to it."

And thank God for that, Boomer and his star spangled outfits injecting a dose of awwww... into the 16-day event and providing Michael with an extra boost of motivation. 

"When I got out of the warm-up pool for the last time to get ready to go up to the blocks, I have the white shoes that I wore pretty much every finals," Phelps recalled toABC News of that last swim. "In the left foot, there's a footprint of him, inside of my shoe, and I put my shoe on and I looked down at it and I started to get emotional because I knew he was in the stands."

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The whole couldn't-be-scripted-better experience (naturally Michael and his teammates took the gold in that final event, even setting an Olympic record with their 4 x 100 medley relay time), made it easy for the Michael Phelps Foundation founder to close that chapter of his life and step confidently into the next as a philanthropist, advocate, volunteer Arizona State University swim coach and a husband. 

Three 2016 weddings later (the first, a legal formality to make travel to Brazil easier, followed by picturesque seaside vows in Cabo San Lucas that September and a huge New Year's Eve bash), the Arizona-based pair made good on plans to expand their family. Beckett joined his big brother in February 2018; Maverick followed along 19 months later. And, of course, each has a dedicated Instagram following that simply lives for each of the posts Dad crafts. 

"Michael runs it," Nicole shared with Cosmo back when he was just managing Boomer's instantly popular account. "I love watching him do it. I send the pictures and Michael does the posting."

Though little Mav is still growing his audience, in his eight posts he's proven to be socially minded, a strong poser and skilled at tugging at the ol' heartstrings. "We're the 3 best friends that anyone could have," read a March post, a sentiment that would be sweet AF even if you didn't know the backstory. 

Every moment of those complicated, difficult eight long years of off-and-on romance was worth it to reach the place they're at now, a hectic but altogether happy blur of pool days, golf outings, bike rides and date nights in. "We love being home and cooking together. We're homebodies," Nicole told Cosmo. "We like to play cards together. We'll go in the backyard and play cornhole." We'd imagine even the friendliest of matches can get competitive, between the two proven winners, but safe to say they both feel pretty victorious.

"It's been a long time. We've been through a lot," Michael admitted to USA Today just after his 2015 proposal. "But I love her to death. We've been able to grow as a couple through everything we've been through, the positive changes I've made in my life." After everything, he shared, "I've said this a hundred times, and I'll say it again now: I'm so happy with where I am now."