Gold-Medal Swimmer Phelps Says Still Has Much to Prove at London Olympics

Michael Phelps, already the winner of the most gold medals in Olympic history, says he still has goals to meet as he prepares to swim in his fourth Games this year in London.

He just won’t say what they are.

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the American won eight gold medals, the most at a single Olympics -- bringing his career total to a record 14. His 16 total medals are two behind Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 from 1956 to 1964.

After a three-year stretch during which he said he lost motivation to train, the 26-year-old Phelps said today in an interview that he has rediscovered his love for swimming and feels better than he had at any time since his record-setting performance in China. As he did four years ago, he won’t specify what he wants to prove when the London Games begin on July 27.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Phelps said in New York following the announcement of a marketing campaign with Procter & Gamble Co.’s Head & Shoulders shampoo brand. “There are goals that I think are meaningful, and some that are special to me, helping me get out of bed in the morning and into the pool.”

That recent motivation has been critical for Phelps. He said it took until the world championships last year in Shanghai for him to get back to the training that helped him win more Olympic medals than any American athlete.

“Over the last three years, I was golfing more than I was swimming,” Phelps said. “This is the most excited I’ve been since going into Beijing, this is the best shape I’ve been in since going into Beijing.”

International Appeal

Hanneke Faber, a Procter & Gamble vice president in charge of hair-care products, today unveiled a new sport shampoo, to be released in more than 100 countries. She said Phelps offers more from an international standpoint than athletes such as New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, the Most Valuable Player of this month’s Super Bowl. Procter & Gamble, based in Cincinnati, is the world’s biggest consumer-products company.

“Eli Manning is obviously huge here, but if you go to India or China, people are going to have no earthly clue who that is,” said Faber, an All-American diver at the University of Houston in 1991. “Michael is one of not even a handful of global athletes who is truly iconic.”

Matt Delzell, a group account director at The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based promotional company, said it is tough for Olympic athletes to stay relevant because they are in the public spotlight once every four years. He said Phelps, one of a rare breed of Olympic athletes capable of carrying sponsorships through non-Olympic years, remains marketable despite the layoff since his last gold medals.

‘Spike and Dip’

“In those three years in between there’s not a lot of chance for him to build his brand, for him to build awareness,” Delzell said in a telephone interview. “There is a spike and then a dip for three years, and then a spike and then a dip for another three years.”

Phelps pleaded guilty in 2004 to driving under the influence of alcohol, and in 2009 a British newspaper published photos of him with a bong, typically used for smoking marijuana. Phelps apologized for both transgressions.

Faber said the issues didn’t affect her company’s desire to work with Phelps, who also has sponsorships with Speedo athletic wear, Subway sandwich ships, Under Armour sports gear and Omega watches.

“The fact that he bounced back from that is a testament to him and his team, and four years later he is still one of the more marketable Olympians in the world,” Delzell said.

New Competition

Phelps, named the American Swimmer of the Year eight times from 2001 to 2009, has struggled in the pool at times since Beijing. Ryan Lochte, a 27-year-old who has won the award the last two years, beat Phelps in both the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter medley at the world championships last year.

Phelps said the experience gained in three previous Olympics will benefit him in London.

“Going into 2004, I was a deer in headlights and going into 2008 was a little bit better,” Phelps said. “Right now, I feel more relaxed and laid-back than I have going into any of my Olympics. I think I will be able to use that this time around.”

Phelps said he knows, and won’t divulge, the races he intends to swim in London. He is keeping track of the time until the Games start -- “It’s about 173 days,” he told reporters today. He travels to Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Feb. 12 to begin three weeks of altitude training.

“I’m older, I don’t recover like I used to, but this is the time to make sure I am doing all the little things correctly,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I have been able to feel myself coming back to the old me once again.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York at enovywilliam@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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