Life in fast lane suits Phelps only in water

Being pro not altering swimmer's goals, style

Swimming

November 29, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Young professional athletes deal with as many situations as there are sports.

Kwame Brown skipped the NCAA farm system and is learning basketball as a member of the Michael Jordan Show, a k a the Washington Wizards. He'll earn guaranteed millions, and the prospect of a similar payday has lured legions of young golfers and tennis players to Florida. Santino Quaranta, America's youngest soccer pro, commutes from Highlandtown to his job with D.C. United, which took him around the nation this year.

Then there is the considerably lower profile fashioned by Michael Phelps, the 16-year-old swimmer from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club who, last spring, became the youngest man ever to set a world record. While Brown receives an education in the ways of fame and fortune and Quaranta completes his high school studies through a tutor, Phelps remains a member of the Towson High Class of 2003.

"Michael turning pro has a different connotation," said Frank Morgan, a local attorney who represented Phelps in the negotiations with Speedo that, in effect, made him a pro. "Typically, someone who forgoes college athletics and turns professional does so to join a pro team, and is constantly traveling. Being on a swim team is different. Michael lives at home. A lot of his teammates are 13-year-old girls trying to get faster."

So is Phelps, whose mass appeal as a star in a niche sport relies on the Olympics.

Speedo, which had never offered an endorsement deal to a male as young as Phelps, signed him through 2005 because he figures to be one of the American athletes that NBC will hype at the 2004 Games. Phelps' friends are about to be consumed by college choices that will have some leave home in the fall of 2003, and that's when Phelps will begin his final buildup to the Olympics in Athens.

"It's interesting to see the colleges my friends are talking about," Phelps said. "I am going to delay college and just train that year. When I go back to the Olympics, I want to win more than one [gold medal]."

Phelps has already been to Australia for the 2000 Olympics and Europe for World Cup meets and Japan for the world championships. Speedo officials think Phelps could explore territory no American male swimmer has since 1972, when Mark Spitz transcended the sport with a haul of seven Olympic gold medals.

The world record-holder and reigning world champion in the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps will display his growing versatility at the U.S. Open in East Meadow, N.Y., which starts today.

In addition to extending his domination of Tom Malchow, the Olympic champ in the 200 fly, Phelps is ready to make a statement in the individual medleys, where he wants to reel in Tom Dolan, the man regarded as the world's best all-around swimmer.

It will be Phelps' first meet as a pro, but will anyone outside the swim world notice? No television coverage of the meet is scheduled.

"Swimming is not really perceived as a professional sport, and Olympic athletes generally do not get the big bucks," said Noreen Jenny, the owner of Los Angeles-based Celebrity Endorsement Network. "They are limited by what they do in the Olympics. So much of it has to do with the person, how good they are in front of the camera."

Speedo vice-president Stu Isaac cited Phelps' appeal with young swimmers, but the swimmer hasn't limited his public speaking to pool rats. He has visited 9-year-olds at an inner city elementary school and senior citizens at a retirement home in Parkville, where one of the residents did some of the talking.

"I wore my baseball hat inside," Phelps said. "One guy raised his hand and said `Remove your cap, son.' I've had kids all excited to see me, but I've walked into senior centers, too. I talk about what I've done with life, talk about my accomplishments and my family."

Phelps has one foot in high school, where physics can be a chore, and another in the world of practice and public appearances. Recently he's been logging 75,000 meters a week - nearly seven miles of swimming a day. If NBAC coach Bob Bowman isn't chaperoning Phelps, his mother is. An administrator with the Baltimore County public schools, Debbie Phelps accompanied her son to Phoenix two weeks ago for a Speedo photo shoot.

Isaac and Phelps' representatives will not discuss details of the deal, but no American swimmers are in the realm of Ian Thorpe, who has turned Australia's obsession with water into earnings that have been estimated at $4 million annually. On the prize money front, a USA Swimming official said that Phelps can collect $25,000 for his world title, and as much as $10,000 for a world record.

Before he turned pro, Phelps consulted Anita Nall, a former NBAC teammate who took the same route after she struck gold at the 1992 Olympics. Morgan set up a trust fund for Phelps' earnings.

"It's a considerable amount," Bowman said of the Speedo deal, "but not enough where Michael never has to worry about money again. It needs to be invested wisely. We have high expectations for Michael, but we're very pragmatic. We want to take care of his education and his long-term financial needs. He's not going to be driving an Escalade next week. He may want to, but it's not going to happen."

That would be putting the SUV before the driver's license. Five months past his 16th birthday, Phelps has yet to attend the driver's education required by Maryland. He does have his learner's permit, and asks whoever is shuttling him between home, school and the pool to move into the passenger seat. Or, he'll flag a ride with Matt Townsend, his best friend since before he went to the Olympics and set a world record.

"Nothing has changed," Phelps said, when asked about his life as a pro. "I'm still doing the thing I love every day."

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