Increased professionalism keeps swimmers in the pool
Athletes supported by generous endorsements are able to swim well past their college years.
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For a former Olympic swimmer like Glenn Mills, a member of the 1980 United States swimming team, Peirsol’s assets are almost beyond comprehension. “When we swam, it was questionable if we could even lifeguard, because that would be using our skill to make money,” he says. In the end, Mills says, he quit swimming because “you couldn’t earn any money in it."
Today, there is enough money for the top athletes to make the sport a comfortable career. In contrast to the days when swimmers could rarely continue beyond college, the three American gold medalists on Tuesday morning were all repeat Olympians well past their college days.
Both Peirsol, winner and world-record setter in the 100-meter backstroke, and Michael Phelps, winner and world-record setter in the 200-meter freestyle, are three-time Olympians. Women’s 100-meter backstroke winner, Natalie Coughlin, is in her second Summer Games. In all, six American swimmers are in at least their third Games.
“The whole dynamic has changed,” says John Lohn, a columnist for Swimming World magazine. And what has changed the most is sponsorship money.
Famously, Nike recently signed Cullen Jones, a swimmer who did not qualify for a single individual event in Beijing, to a $2 million endorsement deal. He is an exception, for as an elite African-American swimmer, he provides unique endorsement opportunities. But the offer hints at the sort of money now available as companies such as Speedo and Nike “realize this is good for advertising,” says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian.
The money is hardly spread evenly across the sport. “The drop-off is significant,” writes Gary Hall Jr., a three-time Olympian who missed making the current team, in an e-mail. “There are guys that are ranked top 10 in the world that are making $30,000 a year or less.”
But for top swimmers, like Peirsol, “money is not an issue,” says Mr. Lohn. A three-time gold medalist in Athens, Peirsol has endorsement deals with Nike, Toyota, and Bank of America, among others. For his part, if Phelps breaks the record of seven swimming gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympics, he will receive a $1 million bonus from swimsuit manufacturer Speedo.