Sports REDIRECT SECTION: sports olympics

For most, water far from green

One in a series of occasional articles on Michael Phelps and his path to the 2004 Olympics.

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."

Under the U.S. Olympic Committee's Operation Gold program, USA Swimming awarded Phelps $25,000 for each of his three gold medals at July's world championships, $12,500 for his silver and slightly less than $5,000 for his role in two relays.

In Barcelona, Phelps became the first swimmer to set five world records in one meet. For the year, he set eight. USA Swimming awards $25,000 for world records, but that bonus can be collected only once per event per year. Phelps set standards in the 100 and 200 butterflys, and the 200 and 400 individual medleys. Two weeks later, American records in the 200 and 400 freestyles earned bonuses of $10,000 each.

Thanks to a monthly stipend given to several dozen of America's best, Phelps picks up another $15,000 a year from USA Swimming.

Most professional team athletes earn the bulk of their salary from playing contracts. Swimmers, conversely, make more from endorsement contracts loaded with performance-based bonuses and speaking fees. If the client and event are the right match, a prominent Olympian can make $15,000 per appearance.

Peter Carlisle, Phelps' agent, points to Lenny Krayzelburg, a three-time gold medalist in 2000, as "transcending the sport" with his tale of escaping anti-Semitism in Russia. Morganstein's success stories at PMG include Jenny Thompson, the most decorated American Olympian ever.

His client list also includes Beth Botsford, a former NBAC swimmer who won gold in the 100 backstroke at the 1996 Olympics. Botsford is on the comeback trail after completing her eligibility at Arizona, and her biography on the PMG Web site lists no sponsors.

"The industry forgets about you quickly," Morganstein said.

Speedo contracts include confidentiality clauses. Major college basketball and football programs, and their coaches, are criticized for getting rich on the skills of their athletes, and some levy a similar complaint against swim coaches and companies.

Historically, swimming has little spectator appeal beyond the Olympics. In a crowded marketplace where pro football and NASCAR have perfected the art of building drama during a three-hour television window every Sunday afternoon, swimmers get one chance every four years to captivate America.

"You don't get to see it on TV, and you don't get to dial into the personalities," Spitz said.

Spitz never finished dental school, but he still does a prosperous trade giving motivational speeches.

Phelps was featured last weekend in South Bend, Ind., at a clinic noteworthy on two fronts: It was the first business trip in which he traveled without a chaperone, and it was arranged more than a year ago.

He will be making fewer such appearances as his Olympic focus narrows, but similar promotions are included in next month's trip to Australia, where he'll compete in two prize-money meets.

Rowdy Gaines hopes Phelps increases interest in the sport. The NBC swim analyst is also the head fund-raiser for USA Swimming, and his pitch includes personal anecdotes of sacrifice heading into the 1984 Olympics, when he won three gold medals.

"I lived off of a lot of macaroni and cheese, a lot of peanut butter and jelly," Gaines said. "When I competed, it had absolutely nothing to do with money, and I'm sure a lot of swimmers today will tell you the same thing. They love to be on the podium in the Olympics. They love the travel and the friendships.

"Michael Phelps has a lot more reasons to swim than the money. For today's athletes, specifically Michael, swimming is a job. He is the LeBron James of swimming, except that he's making one-hundredth of the money."

Help from parents

Gaines juggled his pre-Olympic training in Austin with a job as a hotel night clerk. Two decades later, fellow gold medalist Tommy Hannan scrapes by in the Texas capital on his $1,250-a-month stipend from USA Swimming, the occasional speaking fee, a modest Nike sponsorship and assistance from his parents back in Catonsville.

The Mount St. Joseph grad got a degree in finance last May from the University of Texas. He is aware of the economic reality of his quest to improve on his performance in the 2000 Olympics, when he swam the preliminary in a relay in which the U.S. team earned gold.

"My mom and dad still help out," Hannan said. "I would not be able to do this without them. I'm probably below a minimum-wage employee, but if I wanted to make real money, I would get a full-time job. That's part of being a swimmer."

While Ravens and Orioles are accustomed to someone else picking up their tabs, Phelps and other members of the NBAC's Senior Elite Group pay annual dues of $1,850. It's not an insubstantial fee to some of his training partners.

"We didn't get full rides [scholarships], and I'm about $17,000 in debt on student loans," said Kevin Clements, who moved here from Auburn University last spring to enhance his Olympic chances. He is the second-fastest American ever in the 200 IM. "Any money that I make is a bonus. At this level, it's all about pride."

Marianne Limpert, the NBAC's newest member, is seeking to make her record fourth Canadian team. She has a silver medal from 1996, when she was beaten in the 200 IM only by a suspected illegal-substance user. Living on $1,100 a month from Sport Canada, income from her contract with Speedo and wise investments, she harbors no illusions about a swimmer's place.

"For me," Limpert said, "the professional athlete is the baseball player, the hockey player, the football player."

Does she consider herself a pro?

"I call myself a full-time athlete," Limpert answered.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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