The sound of music has Michael Phelps back in the endorsement business, just months after a tabloid photo of him holding a bong caused the loss of one sponsor and earned him a three-month suspension from USA Swimming.
Phelps, 23, has signed a multiyear deal with H2O Audio, a San Diego-based company that produces waterproof headphones and cases used by divers. The 16-time Olympic medalist joins a stable of athletes, including surfer Laird Hamilton and 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin.
In a statement, company founder and CEO Kristian Rauhala called Phelps "one of the finest athletes in the world" who "embodies our vision and commitment to excellence."
The swimmer, a native of Rodgers Forge who lives in Fells Point, is rarely far from his iPod and ear buds as he prepares for competition. But, he once explained, the force of his starts and turns made training with headphones impractical.
Phelps' longtime agent, Peter Carlisle, said discussions with H2O began before the Beijing Olympics and were a natural outgrowth of the deal with Coughlin, whom he also represents.
"They took the time to decide which athletes fit in," Carlisle said. "For us, it was a nice opportunity to become familiarized with the products and the program."
But in February, Phelps' post-Olympics schedule, which included appearances on MTV and Saturday Night Live and promotional work for Visa and Disney, came to a screeching halt when a British tabloid published a photo of him apparently smoking marijuana from a bong at a South Carolina party.
Although Kellogg dropped Phelps as a spokesman, other sponsors such as Speedo, Visa and Subway, stuck by him.
H2O spokeswoman Andrea Tagliareni said the company knew the announcement would raise the issue of the suspension again. "We don't comment on other deals he has or his personal life," she said. "H2O was all about having the same perspective and mission as Michael Phelps."
Carlisle said Phelps "could have buried his head in the sand, but his ability to grow the sport and help his causes and his business is in having him out there. That's his reality, and it's H2O's reality. ... We try to look beyond what the short-term headline is."
In the two meets since his suspension ended, Phelps has won four races and finished second four times.
He is scheduled to swim the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter freestyle this weekend in Montreal at the Grand Prix Canada Cup. The event is a tuneup for the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming national championships and world championship trials July 7-11 in Indianapolis.
The FINA world championships will be July 26-Aug. 2 in Rome.