They say, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” For many accomplished men, the driving force begins at birth. If this is the case, then it wouldn’t be hard to predict that Michael Phelps – the Olympic swimmer who broke records for earning the most gold medals during a single competition in 2008 – would become one of the most successful Olympic athletes in history. That’s because even before he was born, his mother, Debbie Phelps, was planting seeds for her own success. And along her journey, she recently found herself kicking off New York Fashion Week by encouraging fashionistas to live heart-healthy lives.

Dressed in an all-red embellished Adrianna Papell gown, a glowing Debbie Phelps strutted the Heart Truth runway with fervor, only stopping to land a kiss on her son Michael’s (whose celebrity status has propelled him to coveted front-row placement) cheek. Debbie was one of 17 celebrities including Minka Kelly, La La Anthony and Gloria Estafan, to walk in the Heart Truth Red Dress Collection Fashion Show. The annual Fashion Week kick-off show is apart of a national campaign designed to bring awareness to women’s heart health.

During a Subway-sponsored lunch with Debbie and her daughter Hilary, I asked Debbie if she had taken measures to prepare for her first runway show, her response was a polite but emphatic, “No.”

“I’ve hit a milestone in my life where I’m happy with whom I am,” she told me. “I take care of myself, and so I am who I am. I won’t be anywhere near a Victoria’s Secret model, but people look at me around the world and see Michael’s mom. I don’t try to be anyone else.”

A friend pitched in to remind me that Debbie could run circles around all of us – after all, she is a mother of three and principal of the Windsor Middle School, a public school she founded six years ago near her Maryland hometown. And while she may have been minus the Angel wings during Fashion Week, Debbie floated down the runway doing a self-proclaimed “principal walk.”

“I try to be a role model for the girls at my school,” she explained while trying on jewelry for the show and discussing shoe choices – a mere 1.5” heels for her – for the night. As a principal, Debbie is already setting a trend by instituting an award-winning nutrition system and curriculum for nearly 600 students. “I was in the classroom for 20 years, teaching science using food as a vehicle. When I opened my school, I wanted to instill healthy eating habits in my children. I also try to model what I preach.”

But the one thing she won’t let go? “Ice cream. Hey, it’s a great source of calcium!”

Debbie is now a spokeswoman for the health-conscious food chain, Subway, and author of Mother for All Seasons, a book that discusses her life journey as a mother and educator of 40 years.

– Tracey Lewis


Photos via Zimbio, Tom and Lorenzo, Shape, and Sina