In this July 31, 2014 photo, Michael Phelps, left, goes over details of a prototype swimsuit with designers before a training session at Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center in Baltimore. After partnering with Speedo through most of his swimming career, Phelps has agreed to a new deal with Aqua Sphere. The company is a newcomer to competitive swimming, but is already designing a racing suit that Phelps can begin wearing on Jan. 1. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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BALTIMORE (AP) — Michael Phelps has been linked with Speedo throughout his swimming career, most notably collecting a $1 million bonus after he won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Games.
Now, as he comes back from retirement, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history will have a different look.
Phelps is announcing Tuesday that he has signed a deal with Aqua Sphere, a company that has extensive experience with triathlons and recreational swimming but will be designing a racing suit for the first time.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been able to do a lot of things with Speedo. The relationship was great,” Phelps told The Associated Press. “But we came to a point where we had an opportunity to really change the sport and grow the sport even more.”
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, will be working with Aqua Sphere on a range of products beyond racing suits, hoping to lure more kids into swimming and reduce the number of drowning deaths.
The deal is a huge coup for Aqua Sphere, which is now represented by the winningest athlete in Olympics history as it tries to carve out a niche alongside more established swimsuit companies such as Arena, Speedo and Tyr.
Phelps had been sponsored by Speedo since he was 16, and starred at Beijing in a high-tech suit the company designed with help from NASA. The deal ran out at the end of last year.
After receiving offers from all the major companies, the 29-year-old was intrigued by the idea of going with a firm that would give him and Bowman substantial input into the design of everything from racing suits to products that could be used at the grass-roots level.
“It’s all hand-in-hand with not only my goal to grow the sport of swimming, but to help kids live healthy and active lifestyles and learn to swim,” Phelps said. “It starts from there.”
Don Rockwell, the CEO of Aqua Sphere, said his company began talking with Phelps’ representatives after learning the deal with Speedo was ending. At the time, they weren’t sure he would actually return as a competitor. Of course, there were no complaints when he announced his return in April.
Now Aqua Sphere will have one of its suits on a swimmer with 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall.
“Once we heard he was coming out of retirement, we stayed on the same track,” Rockwell said. “But this is a big opportunity for us.”
Under FINA guidelines, any new suits must be approved by the governing body and can be worn in competition starting Jan. 1. Even with that relatively short time frame, Aqua Sphere is confident about designing a suit that Phelps will be comfortable in and allows him to go just as fast as he would in the Arena suit he’s been wearing since returning to competition.
“To be able to partner with the foremost experts, with the best competitive swimmer of all time and one of the most technical swim coaches to help us in that process, that alleviates any sort of pressure in terms of developing this new product,” said Todd Mitchell, who manages the swim business line for Aqua Sphere.
Last week in Baltimore, Phelps and Bowman held their first extensive talks with Aqua Sphere’s engineers and designers, providing their feedback on products that are merely prototypes at the moment. There is still work to do before there’s a suit, cap and goggles that Phelps will be ready to wear in competition, but they say the initial tests were encouraging.
Phelps said the suit “felt great” and he provided suggestions on ways to modify the goggles to meet his needs, especially the range of vision it provides.
“It’s really just an investment of our time,” Bowman said. “I think they have all the wherewithal and infrastructure to make it happen. It’s really exciting for us to actually be able to create some things whereas normally it’s just something where we pick out something and use it. Now, we can tailor and make some things to the way we’d like swimming to go, the things that we think are important.”
Terms of the contract were not released, but it runs through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Phelps has made no commitment to swimming past the Rio Games in two years, though both sides insist this is a long-term relationship that will carry on beyond his time in the water.
“The barrier to getting into the sport and the barrier to Michael’s efforts to grow the sport relate directly to product,” said Phelps’ agent, Peter Carlisle. “The motivation is there for both partners to really change the approach that’s been taken, to take a much more inclusive approach to it. We think a big difference can be made.”
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