Michael Phelps and his history-making eight Olympic Gold medals a feat followed by millions of new swimming fans has set the stage for an aquatics rebirth never before seen.
Barely a month since the closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, aquatics centers and swim schools everywhere have seen a spike in interest from would-be athletes inspired by the incredible performance of Phelps and his teammates.
?When you look at iconic moments in Olympic history, it?s been other sports that have gotten the attention. The relay with Jason Lezak and Michael Phelps? ?touch? will be remembered for a very long time. Outside of Usain Bolt, swimming really stole the show,? said Bruce Wigo, CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He said ISHOF also has been flooded with Olympic-inspired inquiries about Michael Phelps and where to sign up for swim lessons.
Bill Oliver, head coach of the Rio Mesa Swim Club in Ventura County, Calif., has seen a similar reaction. He noticed a more than 25 percent increase in registrations for his team program. ?The Americans did outstanding in the Olympics, and that translates into more interest in the sport,? Oliver said.
He?s not alone. The Newark Star Ledger of New Jersey reported that the Princeton Piranhas swim team saw nearly double the number of swimmers at team tryouts. The same was true in Arizona. ?I?ve never responded to so many calls, e-mails and inquiries,? Mark Rankin told azcentral.com ?Every four years, there?s always a big boom. Everyone gets that Olympic fever.? Rankin is head coach of the Westside Silver Fins.
USA Swimming is even more excited about the Phelps phenomenon. ?Bolstered by record performances and high television ratings at the 2008 Olympic Games, [we are] anticipating our largest single-year membership boost in history,? an organization release stated. ?With past Olympics sparking 5 to 10 percent increases in membership, USA Swimming hopes to see post-Beijing numbers surpass those marks.?
Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming?s executive director, was equally enthused. ?The excitement surrounding the sport of swimming is undoubtedly at an all-time high,? he stated. ?We absolutely expect that this sort of excitement and exposure will translate to membership growth at our clubs across the nation.?
Clearly, the Olympic dream is powerful motivation for young swimmers. ?Most of the swim school owners love to use themes like the Olympics to motivate their students, staff and parents,? said Jeff Purchin, principal of Five Cities Swim School, Arroyo Grande, Calif., and a United States Swim School Association board member.
But aquatics experts and swim team leaders say even Phelps? history-making achievement may not be enough to sustain the surge in interest. They note that aquatic competition requires long hours of training and commitment to the grueling practice schedules. It also takes commitment from parents, Oliver said. They need to be willing to get up and bring their children to early-morning practices and travel to meets, just as much as the kids need to be willing to participate.
Greater visibility is another essential ingredient in sustaining interest. The good news, thanks to Michael Phelps and his gold streak, is that it appears the American public is hungry for more iconic moments in the pool. And swimming will get the spotlight for some time to come.
NBC-TV will televise next year?s World Swimming Championships and the 2009-11 National Championships. The network already has secured rights to the 2012 Olympic trials and the 2012 Summer Games in London.
Undoubtedly, Phelps also will be seen endorsing a variety of products. As of press time, no major new contractual arrangements had been announced, but he?s made appearances for sponsors and helped begin the public relations machine for 2012.
?Michael Phelps would be worth $40 million or $50 million to Nike,? said Howard Bloom in a recent Wall Street Journal article. ?He could literally allow them to launch a massive swimwear company, and I think you are going to see an incredible bidding war for him.? Bloom teaches sports management at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Book and movie deal offers also have been forthcoming. Phelps recently announced plans to write a book detailing his journey to Olympic glory and Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has scheduled Built to Succeed for release by the end of the year.
Exploring entertainment world possibilities, Phelps will make his acting debut hosting the season premiere of NBC?s ?Saturday Night Live.? He already appeared on the MTV ?Video Music Awards? last month. And he?s also filmed a cameo appearance for the HBO series ?Entourage.?
?We?ll see if [Michael Phelps] provides more opportunities for swimmers to become more visible like Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller, going beyond the sports world into [mass] entertainment,? Wigo said.
Phelps himself has said he hopes to have a major impact on bringing his sport to the public. With his performance in Beijing, it appears that he?s well on his way to doing just that.
Since leaving the medal stands, he has established the Michael Phelps Foundation, seeded with the $1 million bonus he received from Speedo for achieving the eight-medal record. The money will go to various groups to promote youth swimming.
Additionally, Phelps will make an eight-city speaking tour to share his experiences and encourage youths through empowerment and goal-setting. The program ?Dream, Plan, Reach? is set to be a cornerstone of the foundation. Its mission is ?to operate exclusively for charitable, educational, and scientific purposes and to promote healthy, active lives, especially for children, primarily by expanding opportunities for participation in the sport of swimming, both nationally and internationally.?