SI Vault
July 28, 2008
Michael Phelps
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July 28, 2008

8 The Quest

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"They say I should be afraid because every swimmer in the water is out to get me," Phelps says, sounding slightly menacing. He pauses for a beat. "Fear is good."

"Down a little in register," the director commands, "almost as if you're whispering."

"Fear is good. Fear is good. Fear is good." Phelps gamely repeats his lines, with different inflections. Though perfectly serviceable, his delivery does not hint at a future acting career.

In the hallway behind him, a PowerBar executive turns to Marissa Gagnon, one of Phelps's agents from Octagon. "This is kind of a lot for him to do," he says, acknowledging the 15-hour workday that Phelps is putting in on the heels of a four-day competition; the PowerBaralooza of promotional duties that are part of the deal for an athlete whom CNBC has dubbed Madison Avenue's Golden Boy. Gagnon smiles. "Oh, he loves it," she says.

It's not really a lie. And even later, five hours into the shoot at 10 o'clock at night, when Phelps is handed six sheets of questions that need to be answered on camera so they can be aired at PowerBar's next corporate sales meeting—What are your goals? How do PowerBar products help you achieve your goals?—he remains an affable and polished pro.

It wasn't always this way. Certainly, Phelps can be forgiven for stumbling through his earliest press conferences. He was, after all, 15—and a young 15 at that, a gawky kid struggling with his parents' divorce. At swim meets he threw tantrums and goggles. In practice and in life he chafed at Bowman's relentless discipline. For all the credit due his mother, Debbie, his older sisters, Hilary and Whitney (both successful swimmers), and Bowman, the main architect of Phelps 2.0 has been his agent, Octagon's Peter Carlisle.

When they met in 2001, Phelps told Carlisle that he wanted nothing less than to "change the sport of swimming." Carlisle listened. And it's likely that Octagon's handling of Phelps's career will be a model for future Olympians. As Phelps heads into Beijing, he's a seven-figure industry—a first for any swimmer—with sponsors that, along with PowerBar, include AT&T, Omega watches, Speedo, Visa and the language software company Rosetta Stone. (And, yes, Phelps is using that last company's products to learn Mandarin. "Michael wants to interact with the Chinese people," Gagnon says.)

Carlisle's tour de force came in 2003. Reasoning (correctly) that a splashy pre-Athens deal linked to Spitz's seven golds would set off a media jamboree, he got Speedo to agree to a million-dollar bounty for at least equaling that number. And with that, Phelps's goal was largely realized. Because in this country nothing raises the profile of a sport like a couple of commas on a check.


If there was ever a low-tech sport, you'd think it would be swimming. You've got water; you've got the human body. But wait: There's the suit. And when an unclipped fingernail can mean the difference between gold and not-so-gold, tinkering with this one variable makes sense. In the '70s, female suits were stripped of the built-in skirts that scooped up gallons on every turn. Next came spandex. Throughout the next two decades suits became ever tinier, leading to visions of a suitless future in which a swimmer's privates would merely be spritzed with rubberized paint. Instead, things went the other way. Skin moves around, people realized. It creates drag. Beginning in 1996, suits expanded to cover the entire body, and suddenly there was a lot of material to work with. So why not invent a new fabric covered in denticles, like a shark's skin? Why not laminate and truss and bond zippers and weld seams and otherwise make damn sure that the contours of the human body are wrestled into sleek submission?

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