Suiting up for Olympic victory

Sun Staff

NEW YORK - Pressure is the name of a sleek Greenwich Village nightclub that Michael Phelps, by virtue of his tender age, could not set foot into most evenings.

Yesterday morning, though, there was no question of keeping out the reigning king of the competitive-swimming world, who, incidentally, is no stranger to pressure himself. If Phelps wasn't exactly the guest of honor, he was definitely the primary draw for most of those gathered here, including several journalists from across the Atlantic who came for the express purpose of gaining an audience with the man many expect to be the star of next summer's Olympics in Athens.

Just how attractive budding athletic superstardom makes the 18-year-old was evident. Swimwear maker Speedo rented the nightclub to roll out its new generation of suits for elite competitors, which it calls Fastskin FSII. While other Olympic swimmers were on hand to model the new line, Phelps was clearly the centerpiece, both on yesterday's runway and in Speedo's marketing campaign. In the words of Steve Brenner, president of the public-relations firm handling the Speedo account, "He's the hottest commodity" in swimming.

The primary reason Phelps was here, of course, is the lucrative sponsorship deal he has with Speedo. The company reportedly pays him a base salary of $350,000 a year and will reward him with a $1 million bonus if he wins a record-tying seven gold medals this summer. While the money pales compared with deals struck by athletes in more popular spectator sports, Phelps' contract may be the biggest ever for a swimmer.

Money aside, Phelps, his hair fluffy from a trip to a Falls Road stylist, clearly enjoyed his role in the slick piece of marketing, which kicked off earlier in the day with an appearance on the Today Show. Speedo is trumpeting its new line of body suits as "the world's fastest swimwear," the result of four years of "top secret" research and testing. At Pressure, models wearing lab coats circulated with hors d'oeuvres and handed out Speedo sports drinks in test tubes.

Then came the high-tech video introducing the swimsuit and the fashion show. Glowering in the manner of professional models, Phelps and the other big-name swimmers - Amanda Beard, Jenny Thompson and Lenny Krayzelburg - emerged from behind a translucent screen to stand on a platform, posing with hands on hips and rotating while music pulsated around them.

Sleekly muscled in the skin-tight body suits, they resembled nothing so much as comic-book superheroes. The swimsuits - legal in competitive swimming, Speedo says - are contoured to every curve; they appeared almost painted onto the athletes' bodies. They bring to mind not swimming but the latest X-Men movie. Speedo, in fact, says it consulted Hollywood costume makers in developing the suits.

What happened in the nightclub might hold little interest for the general public, other than serving as further evidence of Phelps' emerging celebrity. Speedo acknowledges the suits have limited commercial possibility. Retailing for as much as $330, they are not intended for those hitting the beach at Ocean City but for competitive swimmers looking for an edge that can be measured in the hundredths of a second by reducing the "drag" in the water.

When Speedo representatives talk about Fastskin, it sounds less like clothing than NASA's latest Mars explorer, a suit not "designed" but "engineered," incorporating the latest in "computational fluid dynamics" and "turbulence management." Maybe anyone trying one on should have a security clearance first.

In any case, only the best-conditioned athletes would ever dare to be caught in one of these suits. Whether they reduce speeds, they may be the most unforgiving clothing ever developed. An extra milligram of fat would stand out like a mountain in the desert.

That's not a problem, of course, for Phelps, who tested the swimwear and offered suggestions during development. He pronounces himself a true believer, a statement Speedo believes carries considerable credibility, given how much Phelps has on the line this summer.

"When we're looking for an extra tenth or hundredth [of a second]; that's when the suits come in." he said. "When we want to win."

After the show was over, Phelps, now in a nylon warmup suit and flip-flops, was all smiles, as he made himself available for a succession of brief interviews before heading to a New York pool to get his workout in. Some Italian journalists had flown in for the day, knowing it was their only chance of getting time with the biggest name in swimming. He was gracious and cheerful, and no more illuminating than most 18-year olds. (Favorite music group: G-Unit. Favorite spectator sport: professional football. Does he have girlfriend? No.)

He kept talking, even as the other swimmers exhausted their interviews. If they minded being in Phelps' orbit, it didn't show. Beard, an Olympic medalist who has become a close friend, says she's noticed how much more comfortable Phelps has become with the media.

"He's a pro," she said.

Debbie Phelps, Michael's mother, was also content as one of yesterday's bit players. She videotaped the entire proceedings, at least one occasion when she could capture her son in public when he was completely dry. She pronounced herself quite satisfied with how Michael looked in the new swimwear. "Wonderful," she said. "But he looks wonderful in everything."

Fame may change everything else for Michael Phelps, but not a mother's bias.

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