"We would have been happy to have him" even if Phelps had not created a massive buzz in the sport by returning to competitive swimming, Rockwell said Tuesday. Phelps will compete in the U.S. Swimming Championships beginning Wednesday in Irvine, Calif.
Aqua Sphere, based in Vista, Calif., announced Tuesday that Phelps — who had long been affiliated with Speedo — and his coach, Bob Bowman, had signed deals to develop "a new class of swim products" and expand water-safety efforts.
The deal includes the development of Phelps' own racing suit.
"There's a couple tweaks we have to make," said Rockwell, who recently visited with Phelps in Baltimore. "Michael showed us where he wanted it tweaked."
Said Phelps: "I'll be able to wear the new suit at the beginning of the year in January. They've gone through all the FINA [governing body] approvals, and we're just trying to work on some small things and some sizing things that we found last week when we were working together."
Phelps had labeled himself a "free agent" in the swimwear market as his deal with Speedo expired as the year began. He had been affiliated with Speedo for years. While his total earnings from the company aren't known, it awarded him a $1 million bonus after he won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.
There had been speculation that he might sign with one of Speedo's competitors, such as Arena or Tyr.
Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle, said Phelps' temporary retirement — it lasted about 20 months — enabled him to think about long-term goals.
"It was an advantage in a way that Michael had decided to retire," Carlisle said, adding that it provided "time to think outside the box. He said he wanted to grow the sport of swimming, and he's done it."
Aqua Sphere was established in Genoa, Italy, in 1998. It bills itself as "the premier swimming equipment manufacturer for fitness and recreational swimming, aquatic exercise and triathlons."
It is a recent player in the business of high-performance swimming suits.
"We weren't in that realm before," Rockwell said of his firm, which has broad experience in recreational swimming and triathlons.
But Carlisle said Aqua Sphere was an appropriate fit because it is international — Phelps himself has become an international brand — and its interest in the sport is focused on more than just the highest-level competitive swimming.
Terms of the deal between Phelps and Aqua Sphere were not disclosed. Rockwell called the deal "long term."
"It's been a great partnership even just from the beginning, being able to have a company that really cares about being able to grow the sport of swimming," Phelps said. "The input that Bob and I both have on moving forward and getting better products and better suits and better caps and goggles is, I think, something that's very exciting for the both of us and also being able to come back to this meet."
Phelps also has a deal with Under Armour for gear that he wears outside the pool.
Phelps is widely regarded as the greatest competitive swimmer in history. The Rodgers Forge native retired after winning his record 18th gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London. But he began working out with Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in 2013, and speculation began that he might return to competition.