By Phillip Whitten
CLOVIS, Calif., Aug. 17. SIXTEEN year-old swimming sensation Michael Phelps, of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club has made up his mind, ending months of speculation in the American swimming community: he's decided to turn pro.
Until recently, professional swimmers have been few and far between in the United States, with only the megastars — Mark Spitz, Janet Evans to name the most prominent — able to earn money comparable to stars in other sports such as tennis and golf. Since the mid 1990s, that situation has changed. Today, perhaps two dozen or more of America's top swimmers earn six-figure incomes.
In Australia, by contrast, swimmers are the most sought-after athletes, the equivalent of NBA and major league baseball stars here, with Ian Thorpe the equal of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Estimates of 18 year-old Thorpe's annual income range upwards from $20 million.
Phelps, who increasingly is being referred to as "the American Ian Thorpe," cannot hope to equal Thorpe's earnings — at least not in the short run. But the 16 year-old phenom has proven, over and over again, that it's foolish to underestimate him.
Phelps said he'd "given a lot of thought" to his decision to become America's youngest pro swimmer. Asked if he regretted giving up his college eligibility, Phelps said: "Not really. This (turning pro) is the best opportunity for me to become financially set for life."
Bob Bowman, his coach at North Baltimore, said he "supports whatever decision Michael makes. We're just going to continue to provide the best possible conditions for him to succeed."