Michael Phelps is sprawled on a couch in a Lower Manhattan hotel, sporting a beard, a gray beanie
cap, a white T-shirt and Under Armour sweatpants and sneakers, an athlete in repose. He’s in New York to accept yet another lifetime achievement award for his triumphs in five Olympic Games, another chance for him and others to revel in his past glories. What Phelps wants to talk about now, however, is the future. “I’ve spent decades staring at that black line at the bottom of a pool,” he says.
“I’m ready to do something new. I’m ready to channel my competitiveness into something else.”
Phelps, 31, is four months removed from what he swears was his last Olympics. The second phase of his life has begun, he says, and it has two main parts: He wants to create a brand that burns brightly for decades to come, but he also wants to become a global champion for the causes that mean the most to him—swimming and the wellbeing of children.
On the brand side Phelps is, of course, well established as a corporate pitchman. Under Armour, Omega, Intel, Activision and Beats by Dre are among his well-known sponsors. (Some of the lesser known: Master Spas, Krave and Sina Sports.) At the height of these sponsorships he earned an estimated $7 million a year. Many of the companies are longtime partners and plan to stay that way. “We hope he’s with us forever,” says Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, which signed Phelps in 2010.
But Phelps is not content simply to be the face of someone else’s brand. In 2013 he left his longtime sponsor Speedo, and the following year he started a swimwear line called MP. He found a partner in Aqua Sphere, a swimwear and swimming accessories company, which now sells Phelps-branded suits that range from $40 to $475. “I’d like to someday have the biggest and best brand in swimming,” he says.
His business role model is, of course, Michael Jordan, whose Nike Inc. Jordan Brand sold $2.8 billion worth of shoes and apparel last year.
Swimming obviously isn’t as merchandisable as basketball, but Plank says Phelps’ ambitions shouldn’t be dismissed: “Michael has that special trait, the ability to be clutch and win when it counts, which he demonstrated over and over at the Olympics. I think he can be the king of all things water.”
Phelps’ other main post-Olympics goal involves his foundation, which he started in 2008 with the $1 million bonus he earned from Speedo for his record-breaking eight gold medals in Beijing. His biggest initiative is the im program (“im” for “individual medley,” one of his strongest events, and for the affirmation “I am”). The program focuses on making children “water-safe.” (Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related deaths for kids ages 1 to 14 in the U.S. and the third leading cause worldwide.) Phelps’ mother made him take a water-safety course when he was a boy, and he says that’s the reason he became a competitive swimmer.
The im program has 104 teams in all 50 U.S. states and another 176 in 33 other countries, and through it 16,000 kids have learned how to swim (for three-quarters of them, the program was their first time in a pool). “I’d like for that number to be 50,000 someday soon and then 100,000,” Phelps says. “The goal is to get every kid in the world water-safe.”
To accomplish these dreams, Phelps will need to become a lasting global icon, no easy task for even the most successful Olympians. Jesse Owens, in the end, was more a powerful symbol than a brand. Muhammad Ali’s boxing career spanned two full decades after his Olympic gold in 1960. And Caitlyn Jenner remains famous four decades after decathlon heroics in Montreal but for reasons no one could have foreseen in 1976.
Yet Phelps was no ordinary Olympian. He began as a 15-year-old prodigy in the 2000 Games and provided a glimpse of the greatness to come in the 2004 Athens Games. Then came the triumph in Beijing in 2008 and the weary wins in London in 2012, followed by the drinking and depression and the stint in rehab. All of which culminated in the redemption in Rio in 2016. In the end Phelps had won an Olympic record 28 medals, all but 5 of which were gold.
That level of longevity and excellence in the Olympics has given Phelps the kind of global profile most American athletes lack. And with his longtime agent, Peter Carlisle, Phelps has been laying the groundwork for a global presence since the beginning of his career. He started visiting China and making deals there five years before the 2008 Games (the Chinese call him the Flying Fish). Phelps and Carlisle used the same playbook for Rio—he made four pre-Olympics visits to Brazil and has since signed a deal with the Brazilian media giant Grupo Globo. And he will soon embark on a tour of Vietnam, Ethiopia, South Africa and Latin America.
Phelps, of course, has been through this before, when he retired for the first time after the 2012 Games. “This time is different,” he says. “Back then I just wanted to dig the deepest black hole and be left alone.” Now “life is so different and so much better. I have Boomer [his 8-month-old son] and Nicole [his wife]. I have other things to worry about than just myself.”
Phelps says he travels three weeks out of every month, and at meetings he doesn’t just show up for the grip-and-grin but really dives in. “I’m actually sitting at the table now during the discussions, asking questions,” he says. “Some of this is self-reinforcing. I want to be out there now. If I isolate myself as I’ve done before, I know the road I’ll go down, and I know it won’t be pretty.”
A question remains: Is he really done competing? “Yes, definitely,” he says, while admitting that he said the same thing in 2012. The 2020 Olympics is out of the question, but Carlisle has been floating an intriguing scenario regarding the 2024 Games. “I think Michael is 100% sure he’s done right now,” he says. “But what if the 2024 Games are awarded to Los Angeles? And what if there was a spot open on a relay team?” Carlisle leaves the thought there, as any good agent would.
Phelps just smiles when this idea is brought up. “I’m happy now,” he says. “And I’m excited for what’s ahead of me.”