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The Flip Turn

By 30 he was the most decorated Olympian of all time. Now he seeks to translate his prodigious accomplishments into an everlasting brand. Can Michael Phelps be like that other Mike?

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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.”

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Get Set Mo!

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Morongoa Mahope feeds her love for extreme biking with petrol and adrenaline. The funds for her pet passion come from her nine-to-five accounting job.

About 10kms north of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa is another racetrack, where superbikes and sports cars are noisily revving up their engines, getting ready for a practice run on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg.

At first glance at the Zwartkops racetrack is a melange of male drivers and mechanics.

But also revving up a superbike, the one numbered 83, is Morongoa Mahope from Mahwelereng in the Limpopo province of South Africa.

READ MORE: ‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya

She is about to clock 270kmph on her black bike, tagged #Mo83 in pink.

When she is not burning rubber on the racetrack, Mahope is an accountant working for an advertising agency in the city.

“When I started [superbiking], it was mainly only for leisure because I love the sound bikes and cars make. I’m a petrol head and just wanted it to commute to work,” she says.

Morongoa Mahope

Her journey started in 2013 when she convinced her husband and family about buying a superbike. Her family was initially apprehensive and viewed superbike racing as dangerous.

Her husband finally relented and Mahope went for a day’s training to see if she really would be interested in the bike before investing in it. The 36-year-old sports fanatic succumbed, and indeed pursued her wish.

“I still have my first bike; it’s a green and black Kawasaki Ninja 250cc. I was just using it to [go to] work until I met a biking club, the Eagle Bikers Club Limpopo,” she recalls.

Mahope was riding with the club, doing breakfast runs between Johannesburg and Limpopo; but, in 2015, they took a trip to Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

READ MORE: Making Up For Millions

Navigating the mountainous, curvy roads, Mahope was overtaking men with her small 250cc bike at the bends.

She was then goaded by her fellow riders to try the racing circuit.

“I went to the track and met a superbike racer; Themba Khumalo, and I started following his journey. I spent more time on the track, practising so I could start racing in 2016. The love for the sport was getting deeper and deeper,” says Mahope.

Khumalo, a professional superbike rider who has raced in the European Championships, says he met Mahope at Zwartkops and it was her first time at the track, and she was quite fast at the corners.

He went up to her to introduce himself because it was rare to see a black woman on a racetrack.

READ MORE: Higher Revenues And Greater Optimism: Female-Owned Small Businesses Are Gaining Ground

“I then took her through the fundamentals of racing and the basics; the type of bike she would need and the equipment. I could see how committed she was and how quick she was learning, and her lack of fear. She was going farther than where she was,” says Khumalo.  

However, her male counterparts were not impressed with her pace on the track; they remarked negatively about her. But Mahope didn’t let the minimizing comments derail her mission.

Unfortunately, Mahope was involved in an accident during training on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and fractured her clavicle before her first race. That took her off the bike for six months.

She joked about the incident with friends, but they persisted and told her it’s an unsafe sport. That encouraged her even more; she wore her helmet and gloves, clocking higher speeds than ever before on her superbike.

Indeed, it was a learning curve. A few months later, she was invited to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to race.

READ MORE: Shopping for ideas

Her first official race was the same year as the injury; it was a club race in Delmas, Mpumalanga, at the Red Star Raceway. She had never been on the grid nor practised how to stud, but for her, it was more about the experience despite the shivers and nerves.

“I finished the race and I was second last. It’s part of how you start but you will improve to be better. And now, I have lost count of the races I have competed in,” she says.

Mahope is racing in the short circuit series for women who use the 250cc, being the only black woman to participate. She also participated in the Extreme Festival tour series, a regional race in which she used her Kawasaki Ninja ZX600cc, racing men with bigger and louder bikes.

“I am the first black woman to be in the grand prix and the challenges that I faced were having to teach myself a lot of things. I had to learn how to ride on the track, the speed, the decelerating, all was new to me. I wasn’t helped.”

Mahope started at a late stage with the sport, and had to put in more time and effort in a short period to get to where she is currently.

READ MORE: Linda Ikeji : Nigeria’s Queen of content raking in millions

Today, she assists women who are starting with the sport.  

Sadly, in South Africa, there is no national league for women to race and represent the country despite finishing in the top three in the 2019 races.

With all her achievements thus far, Mahope’s salary sustains her motorsport passion.

“Racing is very expensive; the more you practise, the more you get better and the more you spend money. On practice day, I spend about R3,000 ($206) and would practise twice a week at different tracks. In total, I would spend R18,000 ($1,235) a month for the track excluding the travel costs to the track and race day,” she explains.These costs cover tyres, fuel and entrance to the tracks.

A sum of about R40,000 ($2,744) can get you geared up for the bike and track.

It just shows this daredevil accountant can balance both the books and the bike.

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Playing Two Shots Ahead

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The 16-year-old dreams of lifting the French Open title in the future, but also hopes to inspire a generation of black players to take up tennis.

Khololwam Montsi, 16, a rising star of South African tennis, recently broke into the list of top 20 junior tennis players in the world after an excellent year that has seen him take part in tournaments in Australia, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Japan, as well as take the South African circuit by storm.

The young prodigy trains at the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town, the same facility that developed Lloyd Harris into a top 100 player on the men’s senior ATP circuit.

Montsi was not actually all that interested in tennis until his older brother, Sipho, took up the game.

“I was focussed on karate and squash, those were my two main sports,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“But when I saw my brother playing tennis, I also wanted to join in. You know what it is like when you have an older brother, you want to follow him and impress him.

“At that time, I was representing South Africa in karate, but I decided to drop the sport for tennis because I started to enjoy it more, was getting better and doing well in tournaments. It motivated me a lot.

“I come from a very sporty background, my father, Xolani, played rugby and soccer; my mother, Phumla, was a sprinter. When I was younger, I did everything – rugby, soccer, cricket, swimming, athletics, the lot. I just love to compete.”

Montsi has developed quickly and, despite his relatively short frame, excelled with racquet in hand to emerge as arguably South Africa’s leading young talent.

“For me, since I am usually always playing against guys bigger than me, my game is not all about power,” he says. “My strength comes from my mind, I feel like I’m smarter than everybody else on court. I can pull off any shot.

“I read the game really well for someone of this age. I play two shots ahead of my opponents and can hit the ball into areas where I know where they will return it to me. That gives me an advantage to be ready. It is the big strength in my game.

“I would love to win the French Open, I’m a big fan of clay courts, you get more time to play. It is better for me at my height.”

And as for his personal role model?

READ MORE: The Highest-Paid Tennis Players 2019: Roger Federer Scores A Record $93 Million

“I would take a few players and combine that. I love Rafa Nadal, he never gives up. I love [Novak] Djokovic, the way he moves across court and is super flexible. Then someone like [Gael] Monfils for the way he can pull off amazing shots.”

South Africa has lacked a black player on the singles circuit and Montsi is hopeful he will break the mould, saying he takes great satisfaction from being a pioneer.

“I want to lift up tennis as a black boy. We do not see tennis as a big sport in South Africa, barely any black kids play. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I do feel a responsibility to help black tennis players get opportunities.

“I play for myself, my family, my coaches and for black people. I would like to help grow the game in South Africa for them. It would be cool if I could help get more people to start playing tennis.”

The obvious question is how he juggles traveling the world and his school work, but Montsi has found a solution.

“I do online home-schooling, which means I can do all my work at tournaments, anywhere in the world as long as I have my laptop. It is tough to balance the two, it takes a lot of discipline.

“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m tired today, I won’t do it’ and I was behind for quite a while, but with the home-schooling system, it is perfect, I have caught up quickly.”

Montsi is preparing for the Australian Junior Open in January, the start of a busy year that will hopefully also see him take part in the senior ATP Tour at some stage.

“To be the first black African to win a Junior Grand Slam would be amazing for me,” he says, adding his future success may depend on funding.

“To become a successful tennis player, you need financial support to get to tournaments. I am being helped a lot, but things can change quickly. I do see myself playing on the pro-circuit, that is my dream. I feel like I can keep my tennis up, but if the finances aren’t there.”

By Nick Said

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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