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Juggling Olympic demands

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Wasn't this a marketing can't-miss?

Michael Phelps has endorsement deals with more than a half-dozen companies. Two, Visa and Argent Mortgage, are also linked to thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. Its middle stop is in Baltimore, where organizers of the Preakness Parade asked the local boy made very good to be this year's grand marshal.

Why didn't Phelps take that limo ride down Eutaw Street?

The thanks, but no thanks from Team Phelps -- which consists of the swimmer and a core of advisers that includes his agent, his coach and his mother -- points to how Phelps has juggled the demands of sponsors who have made the 18-year-old from Rodgers Forge rich, the international media that want to tell his story and the training that made him a sensation in the first place.

Phelps had a full agenda May 8, but the Preakness offer would have been the only item that involved the prospect of several hours under a debilitating sun.

He made a promotional appearance for Speedo, answered questions at a news conference and was feted at a North Baltimore Aquatic Club gala. The morning workout? It was filmed by European television crews.

Phelps wants to make Olympic history in Athens, Greece; race as many as 17 times in eight days; maybe get a gold medal for each day's work. Since he twice made history at the 2003 world championships, television and print reporters have made countless requests for his time. Companies interested in his brand have paid for it.

"Right now, Michael has to be selfish," said Peter Carlisle, his agent. "We've turned down about 10 endorsement offers. If he's had 50 invitations like the Preakness Parade, he's had 100. We've had to turn down media. A national magazine that we covet, there's just not time. You try to do the best you can to accommodate everyone, but every 15 minutes is accounted for."

In September, The Sun likened a typical day for Phelps to the directions on a shampoo bottle: awake, eat, train, eat, rest, repeat. The recent routine for the most-hyped athlete heading into the 2004 Olympics more often than not added at least one of the following: photo shoot, interview or schmoozing with a chief executive officer.

That was the case May 8.

8:05 a.m.

As Phelps and a dozen other members of the NBAC's Senior Elite Group warm up for a workout of 8,500 yards, the deck at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center has nearly as many journalists. A photographer from the Financial Times and minicam crews from England, France and Germany document the day's only practice.

Before the 2003 worlds, Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, usually wore shorts and a T-shirt to practice. Now he is more likely to be in a polo shirt and khaki trousers. Bowman has tried to make at least half of the 10 practices a week media-free, though the group seems oblivious to the observation.

"The way I notice," Bowman said, "is when someone joins the group and says, 'Oh, we have TV here today.' The other kids say, 'Yeah, whatever.' We should be happy to have this opportunity. We are probably playing a bigger role in presenting swimming to a large number of people than any group in the history of this sport."

In 1975, Newsweek and Time cover stories simultaneously trumpeted Bruce Springsteen as the savior of rock 'n' roll. A similarly large helping of magazine covers and television exposure featuring Phelps is coming, courtesy of a media blitz that peaked early last month.

Sports Illustrated shot Phelps frolicking among some residents at Baltimore's National Aquarium. In one day, there was a live remote, Channel 13's "Coffee with ..." segment, the taping of an NBC Today show spot with Matt Lauer and the presence of a writer from The New York Times Magazine. Later that week came two news conferences in as many days.

Autumn through spring, reporters saw Phelps chow down at Pete's Grille, his favorite breakfast spot in Waverly.

"I should get a kickback," said Jamie Barone, one of his teammates, "since I'm the one who introduced Michael to the place."

The Times of London wants regular updates. A reporter from a national news service had to be content with an audience with Bowman. There wasn't time for National Geographic or Maryland Public Television.

NBC, which paid $793 million for exclusive U.S. television rights to the Athens Olympics, is another matter. One of Tom Brokaw's producers got film at a March meet in Annapolis. Phelps is a semi-regular on the Today show. NBC Sports has its own substantial needs.

1:45 p.m.

Phelps is at a Towson department store for a presentation to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and a Speedo promotion. Originally scheduled for March 27, the appearance was pushed back when Argent Mortgage scheduled a commercial shoot in the Bahamas that week.

"Guess you can't reschedule around dolphins," Bowman said.

Offers are screened by Carlisle, the director of Olympic sports for Octagon, the Virginia-based agency that turned tennis player Anna Kournikova into one of the world's most-recognizable faces.

"It's different for Olympic athletes," said Carlisle, who was hired by Phelps in August 2002. "Most get paid by their sponsors."

Last year, Phelps' official earnings, in prize money and stipends from USA Swimming, came to about $213,000. By comparison, the Ravens paid offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden $3.68 million last year.

A premier NFL offensive lineman, Ogden dances in a cheesy local television spot for an insurance company. Phelps has shot commercials in both the Atlantic Ocean, for Argent Mortgage, and the Pacific, for Visa. He has taken direction from people whose resumes include Oscar-nominated films.

If Phelps matches the seven gold medals that swimmer Mark Spitz won in the Munich Olympics in 1972, he would earn a $1 million bonus from Speedo. Even if he doesn't, his pay from sponsors will exceed seven figures this year.

Speedo allowed Phelps to turn professional at age 16. Visa always targets a few prominent Olympians. Phelps has a final tuneup for next month's U.S. Olympic trials at his home pool this weekend. What used to be known as the NBAC Invitational is now the Argent Mortgage Long Course Championships. The California-based company donated a $50,000 heater for the million-gallon outdoor pool at Meadowbrook.

Powerbar joined Phelps' stable of sponsors last month, AT&T Wireless in April. No longer the naive youngster who wore Nike shoes to a Speedo shoot, Phelps has become quite the name-dropper, which led to this exchange at a news conference last month.

Reporter: "How do you remain a kid?"

Phelps: "I'm a normal 18- year-old. I like video games, hanging out with my friends, going to the movies. I text message a lot. AT&T Wireless makes it so easy to text message."

Carlisle said Phelps' appearance fees range from $15,000 for a corporate outing to gratis for a cause that is near and dear, such as a public school in Baltimore County, where his mother, Debbie, is an administrator.

Phelps combines groundbreaking talent with boy-next-door appeal, a potent combination as the Balco doping scandal drags down track and field, another Olympic staple. The pitchman's image, complete with personalized logo, is carefully polished. After 2000, his mother allowed him to get a tattoo of the Olympic rings, but only on his hip, hidden by his trunks.

"It seems like every Olympian has a tattoo of the rings someplace on their body," said Debbie Phelps, who recently dissuaded her son from getting another. "I know you're 18, and can do anything you want, but look at how the camera shows your toes, your arms. Do you really want another tattoo?"

5:15 p.m.

Phelps is working his second news conference in as many days. This one is a line in the sand, as he is about to enter a media blackout period. He has heard the questions, which cover secretive plans for his Olympic program and disarray in Athens, dozens of times.

What events will you swim at the Olympics?

How are you dealing with the pressure?

What will it be like to swim without a roof?

Are you concerned about security in Athens?

Finally: What is your reaction to the media demands ending, at least for now?

"I'm glad it's over," Phelps said.

By declining more interview requests, endorsement opportunities and invitations such as the Preakness, has Phelps enhanced his chances to head a more memorable parade -- the U.S. delegation into the Olympic Stadium in Athens on Aug. 29? That would be at the closing ceremony, where the American of the moment -- four years ago, it was wrestler Rulon Gardner -- hoists the red, white and blue.

Or has a half-year's worth of interviews and commercial shoots compromised his preparation for a taxing July and an even more pressure-packed August?

"We have people who say, 'No one ever pays any attention to swimming.' Then they'll turn around and say, 'How can you let Michael do all this stuff?'" Bowman said. "It's never mentioned that no one has ever done anything like this. I think we've balanced it, and I hope he gets his due from the swimming community."

Phelps' electronics have grown from the compact disc Walkman he uses to get up for races to the Blackberry that tracks his commitments.

Besides his home state, Phelps has raced this year in Alabama, Florida, Indiana and California. In addition to Meadowbrook and the Bahamas, he has trained at two pools during three trips to New York; at Arizona State, where he was doing a Speedo shoot; at Florida International University, around a Visa commercial; and in Colorado Springs, Colo., which he returned home from yesterday after a 17-night stint at altitude.

It may seem a bit much, until Phelps is compared with another member of the high school Class of 2003. Last winter, D.J. Strawberry handled the adjustment to college and 10 road trips in three months with the University of Maryland basketball team.

In January, Phelps flew cross-country to film a Visa commercial. Two days later, as he prepared for a meet at Auburn University, he sat in an Alabama hotel lobby and gushed about the prospect of it airing during the Super Bowl. It didn't. In April, Phelps' practice plan was disrupted when a magazine photographer exceeded his allotted time, but Bowman approaches the planes, trains, automobiles, hair stylists and klieg lights as a help, not a hindrance.

"In the Bahamas," Bowman said, "Michael had a morning practice, the four-hour photo shoot with the dolphin, and immediately came back for an afternoon practice. Ideally, he could have taken it easy, but I said, 'Let's go for it.' I made it a hard practice. It was a cold, overcast day in a pool that was solar-heated. When he's getting to his room after midnight because of a press conference and has to get up in five hours to race, days like that could be a benefit."

9:10 p.m.

Twenty-four hours after meeting NBA star Tracy McGrady and actor Jaleel White, aka "Urkel," at a Ray Lewis charity bowling event, Phelps is shaking hands and signing autographs at another fund-raiser.

He is the center of attention at the NBAC's black-tie- optional gala. A year after he rented a tuxedo for the Towson High prom, Phelps is wearing a $1,500 number he had tailored before a November trip to Australia.

The first item of the gala's auction is round-trip airfare and a week's stay at a four-bedroom townhouse in Jackson Hole, Wyo., near the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Bidding increases in increments of $100 to $3,700, until Phelps, always a strong closer, seals the deal with an offer of $5,000.

"It will probably be 2007," Debbie Phelps says, "before he gets to use it."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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