For most, water far from green

Swimming: Though the Baltimore star is doing well, money doesn't flow from the pool.

October 30, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

It has been a historic year for Michael Phelps.

The payoff for his accomplishments is evidence of how hard it is to make a living in swimming.

The 18-year-old professional from the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and Rodgers Forge has put together the best non-Olympic year ever in the sport. It has been a campaign loaded with distinction, but little prize money in comparison with more mainstream athletes who provide a staple of television programming.

Phelps is expected to be one of the most hyped athletes heading into the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, but a year that brought prominence was accompanied by approximately $213,000 in official earnings.

Counting his NFL record signing bonus, Ray Lewis is rewarded more by the Ravens for one half of a football game. Every five games last season, third baseman Tony Batista got nearly as much from the Orioles.

His contract with Speedo has been renegotiated to reflect Phelps' accomplishments and potential, and his agent is waiting for the proper platform to announce the details of that and other recently completed endorsement deals.

They will multiply his financial portfolio, but if prize money is that hard to come by for Phelps, what's life like for the other 99.99 percent of the swim world?

"I have clients who have turned their Olympic success into a lifestyle, made a great living, but you have to hustle and you have to be an entrepreneur," said Evan Morganstein, whose Premier Management Group promotes 33 swimmers.

"That said, do you know how hard it is to make a million dollars a year? To do that, your appeal has to go beyond traditional sponsors."

Few beyond Phelps and Ian Thorpe, his Australian counterpart, carry that cachet. The Olympics are open to professional athletes, but in reality, many world-class swimmers still seem to abide by the amateur code.

Modern Olympians have it good compared with their predecessors, who were forbidden from capitalizing on their athletic fame while they competed. Although college scholarships and Communist sports factories provided a support system, the Olympics remained amateur for most of the 20th century.

Johnny Weissmuller was primed to become the first swimmer to win an event in three different Olympics. He retired before the 1932 games in Los Angeles, but stayed in Tinseltown, starring as Tarzan in the movies.

Phelps is compared to Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals in Munich in 1972. Proceeds from the sale of a poster in effect ended his career, but at age 22, he was hardly over the hill.

"Had there been a situation that allowed me to swim and take endorsement money, absolutely, I would have continued," Spitz said. "The reality is that I had anticipated the end of my career, and I was in dental school. Nobody who had come before me had made a living in swimming."

With the exception of boxing, the Olympics were completely opened to professionals after the 1988 games. Phelps is erroneously described as being America's youngest pro swimmer ever; he wasn't even the youngest member of the NBAC to swim for money.

Anita Nall was 14 in 1991, when she became the American record-holder in the 200-meter breaststroke. Later that year, she accepted a stipend from USA Swimming and surrendered her chance at a college scholarship. She posed for a Gap ad that paid $700, but a big payday off the Olympics never came.

Nall won relay gold in 1992, but silver and bronze in individual events hurt her marketability. It's estimated that she has earned approximately $250,000 in the past decade from her swimming career.

`Catch-22 for me'

Weakened by illness, Nall said she wasn't always able to take advantage of speaking opportunities and accompanying appearance fees. When she entered Arizona State in autumn 1996, she took a job in an on-campus weight room to help pay tuition. Nall, 27, said she wasted much of her earnings.

"It was a Catch-22 for me," said Nall, who lives in Tempe, Ariz., with her husband and their 5-month-old son. "I had a very strenuous training schedule that allowed me very little leeway to make appearances. I didn't do that good of a job taking care of my money. Blame ignorance as well as naivete. I was only 15, and I had no idea what I should do."

Phelps took a calculated risk two years ago this month, when, at 16 years, four months, he signed an endorsement contract with Speedo.

He was already an Olympian, a world champion and the youngest ever to hold a world record. A crucial factor was that his freshman year of college would have coincided with the pre-Olympic year, and he wanted to maintain his training routine.

"To make the next step forward, it's what we needed to do," Phelps said. "I had something going and I wanted to keep it rolling. ... I'm not doing this for the money. If I wanted to do it for the money, I would have gone to another sport."

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