Phelps takes swimming to new heights

US Olympic Swimming Training
Swimmer Michael Phelps is making a huge impact both in and out of the pool. “Everything changed because of him,” one fellow swimmer says.Tony Avelar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Check out the newsstand. Yep, it’s another magazine with Michael Phelps on the cover.

Flip on the television. There’s a good chance you’ll see the world’s greatest swimmer pitching everything from credit cards to energy bars.

Log on to the computer. If you want a behind-the-scenes look at what Phelps was like as a sports-crazy youngster growing up in Baltimore, it’s not too hard to find footage of his gawky years.

Phelps already has taken the record book into uncharted waters.

His impact outside the pool might be even greater.

“Everything changed because of him,” fellow swimmer and three-time Olympian Aaron Peirsol said. “Because of Tiger, golf got more recognition. Because of Mike, we’re on TV a lot more. ... Because of him, people are getting to know our sport a lot better.”

Aiming at a record
Swimming didn’t start with Phelps, of course.

The U.S. produced stars such as Matt Biondi, Janet Evans and Rowdy Gaines, all of whom captured the country’s imagination. But swimming was usually stuck a notch below track and gymnastics on America’s once-every-four-years radar, and most its athletes has little staying power once the flame was doused.

Although Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games, managed to carve out a prosperous living from his swimming accomplishments, his was a boat largely sailing solo, zipping along atop the waves while everyone else watched from shore.

Now, along comes Phelps, a Spitz for this generation.

In Beijing, the gangly 23-year-old who loves hip-hop and tricked-out cars will take another shot at Spitz’s iconic record, having come up just short four years ago when he won six gold medals and two bronzes in Athens.

In all likelihood, Phelps already has surpassed Spitz when it comes to making money off the butterfly, taking advantage of a rapidly changing media world that those around him — led by his team of agents at Octagon — are eager to explore, and exploit.

He has a long list of high-profile sponsors, including Speedo, Visa, PowerBar, Omega, AT&T, Rosetta Stone, Hilton and Kellogg’s. (By the way, he doesn’t like pickles, so there’s no need for Vlasic to make a pitch.) He took part in a much-ballyhooed photo shoot for Vogue that also included LeBron James. He’s been out front on several well-known magazines, currently appearing with good friend and rival Ryan Lochte on the cover of Men’s Journal. He’ll even make a pitch to the good ol’ boys when his face is painted on Jeff Burton’s car for NASCAR’s Aug. 3 race at Pocono, just days before the opening ceremonies in Beijing.

“When you look at this sport 10 years ago,” Phelps said, “you never saw swimmers on a magazine cover. It’s something I really always wanted.”

Targeting Gen Y and Z
But Peter Carlisle, who leads the Olympic and action sports division at Octagon, is looking beyond mainstream media to put Phelps before a whole new bloc of potential fans, the Gen Y’ers and Gen Z’ers who hook up at MySpace, surf for videos on YouTube, go to blogs for their news fix.

For this demographic, television and magazines and newspapers are old-fashioned remnants of their parents’ generation. Octagon went a different route, launching and touting it as the first social networking site for swimmers. There are blogs and instructional videos and, of course, merchandise to buy.

Carlisle could see the future when he signed Phelps as a 16-year-old. He gave the swimmer’s mother, Debbie, a video camera and told her to capture all the behind-the-scenes coverage she could. Now, professional crews tail Phelps and Octagon’s other clients, capturing hundreds of hours of video that is catalogued, stored and sure to show up on a DVD or some other moneymaking venture down the road.

“Now, you can buy a high-def camera for next to nothing, then watch high-def videos online,” Carlisle said. “All the kids are doing that. It becomes a great connector to the general public. There’s a huge market out there, and if you want to promote swimming, it’s that much easier.”

After Beijing, he wants to take it a step further. Instead of the cross-country bus tour that Phelps and several of his teammates went on four years ago, Carlisle envisions a high-tech “Swimming With The Stars” that wouldn’t require so much travel and could reach even more kids.

“The tour becomes less bricks and mortar, so to speak, less driving on asphalt to get to real buildings,” the agent said. “That was a hell of a lot of work. Those guys were exhausted when it was over. If we can connect with more people in a more efficient way, that would be a huge victory. I’m confident we can. We’re working on some really cool concepts.”

For those who cover the sport through more traditional means, Carlisle’s strategy is a bit unnerving. He can simply take Phelps’ message straight to the public without the scrutiny of a reporter asking potentially tough questions, or following up when the swimmer doesn’t provide a straight answer.

Already, some media members grumble quietly about the tight leash Phelps’ handlers — the folks at Octagon and coach Bob Bowman — keep on him. Some have even quipped that when Phelps speaks, often in clichés (“I can’t worry about eight gold medals until I win the first) and generalities (“I just wanted to get in the water and race”), you can barely see Carlisle and Bowman moving their lips.

But Team Phelps knows he can’t be treated like any other swimmer, just as Woods isn’t going to just stop by the ropes to sign autographs or agree to every interview request that comes his way.

After the long hours of practice and the countless sponsor duties, Phelps guards his remaining time zealously. Besides, he’s not that complicated. He never goes anywhere without his cell phone, often texting away even while he’s talking. He loves to poke fun at other swimmers, with 19-year-old Katie Hoff, his former teammate at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and pseudo-little sister, taking the brunt of his abuse.

“He has a real dry sense of humor,” said former Olympic swimmer Mel Stewart, who now covers the sport from the other side of the camera. “If he finds something to get on you about, he doesn’t let up.”

When Phelps does turn serious, he often talks about his desire to take swimming to a new level in America’s sporting hierarchy. He knows it will never be as popular as baseball or the NFL, but sees no reason for swimming to go into mothballs when it’s not an Olympic year.

Hip to be a swimmer
Clearly, Phelps’ presence has brought new fans — or at least plenty of curious onlookers — to check out this man-child with the exceptionally long torso, the wingspan of an albatross, the feet like flippers. He’s inspired countless youngsters to head to their neighborhood pool and try to be like Mike — and we’re not talking about Jordan.

Suddenly, it’s hip to be a swimmer.

“When you see him in commercials, he just looks cool. What he’s doing looks cool,” said Chris Davis, the founder of Swim Atlanta, the country’s largest local club with some 1,800 members. “For four years now, we’ve had him swimming across the ocean and racing dolphins. It’s glamorizing a sport that’s never really been glamorized before.”

Phelps is very much aware of the pivotal role he plays in this transformation. He’s an avid fan of ESPN and sounds downright giddy anytime his name shows up on SportsCenter (he recently filmed a couple of commercials for the show). He’ll excitedly ring Carlisle when his name pops up on “Pardon The Interruption.”

“I’ll talk to people and they’ll say, ’I’m going to be watching the Olympics because of you,”’ Phelps said. “Obviously, that brings new people into the sport. That whole thing is definitely coming along, and hopefully it will come along even more after this year.”

Mark Schubert, the U.S. national team’s head coach and general manager, said he believes the Phelps Phactor will be evident long after he hangs up his trunks.

“Without a doubt, we’re going to see the effects of this 12 and 16 years down the road, because people are going to be interested in swimming,” Schubert said. “People are going to want to go out for summer club swim teams. People are going to want to join USA Swimming clubs in the wintertime. It just develops an interest. More talent in the sport equals more success for the United States.”

Even more than in Athens, Phelps figures to be the transcendent U.S. athlete in Beijing, if for no other reason than millions of viewers will get to watch him chase Spitz every night on live television — in prime time, no less. And how did that happen when the Olympics are being held half a world away?

Well, NBC wanted a ratings boost, and saw Phelps as the surest way to get it. When billions of dollars speak, the International Olympic Committee tends to listen. Shrugging off the complaints of other countries, the swimming schedule in Beijing was flip-flopped. Preliminaries will be held in the evening and finals in the morning, allowing NBC to snare its biggest possible audience back home.

Chasing history
Right about the time most families are finishing up dinner and putting away the dishes, Phelps will be chasing history with a plot line that everyone can understand. Spitz won seven gold medals in Munich. Phelps will be racing eight times — five individual events, three relays — and needs to win them all.

Laying the groundwork, NBC and its cable partner, USA Network, televised eight straight nights of live prime-time coverage during the U.S. Olympic trials.

“This is the best thing that could happen — a generational superstar combined with unprecedented television coverage both at the trials and at the Games,” Schubert said.

Although Phelps certainly could have selfish reasons for wanting to increase swimming’s popularity, those around him say his passion is genuine. He really does want to take others along for the ride.

“I wish people could see how consistently he holds his priority to grow the sport of swimming above most other things in his professional career,” Carlisle said. “Sure, he benefits from that, but he’s not thinking about it that way. If there’s something he can do to help change the sport and benefit it 20 years down the road, he’s thinking along those lines. He’s working very hard with us when we try to create sort of a new platform that hopefully can chip away at things.”

‘I hardly recognize the sport’
Not all the credit goes to Phelps.

Many within the tight-knit swimming community credit Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s innovative executive director, for bringing the sport into a modern era. He was the right man for the Phelps generation, quickly recognizing that today’s fans aren’t content with just watching what’s going on in the water.

The Olympic trials were held in a temporary pool set up inside a sprawling, modern arena in downtown Omaha, Neb. There were pyrotechnics on the pool deck, a cascading green waterfall that spelled out the names of the winners, on-deck interviews conducted by 1976 gold medalist John Naber, and booming music each time the swimmers walked on deck for a race, like fighters heading to a title bout.

“I hardly recognize the sport,” said Biondi, star of the Seoul Games and leader in the fight to professionalize swimming in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “I love the green waterfall. I would like to see my name coming down that fall.”

Wielgus, who took over the organization in 1997, said his biggest accomplishment was something that went largely unnoticed unless you were a ticked-off swimming parent: USA Swimming doubled its annual dues from $25 to $50, then pumped most of that new revenue back into the sport. Half went to grass-roots programs and 25 percent was dedicated to marketing and promotion.

“Hats off to USA Swimming and Chuck Wielgus for embracing sports in the modern era,” Biondi said. “The old mold of AAU swimming, of doing it for the love of the sport, has been broken. They’re looking to the future in a very competitive market.”

Of course, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a star such as Phelps leading the way.

“He’s a special swimmer,” said Eddie Reese, coach of the U.S. men’s team. “One of a century.”