Turning laps into legacy: Phelps' next challenge

As swimming gives way to athletics at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the one story that has captured the world's imagination is the conclusion of Michael Phelps' Olympic career.

As swimming gives way to athletics at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the one story that has captured the world's imagination is the conclusion of Michael Phelps' Olympic career.

Beginning in Sydney, through Athens, Beijing, and London, he posted an Olympic record -- 22 medals, including his perfect eight in Beijing in 2008 – operating under Olympic scrutiny of his every action in and out of the pool.

I've had the opportunity to observe Phelps closely, having worked for the past eight years with Visa supporting its relationship with him, as well as dozens of other Olympic athletes. While his athletic performances have been astonishing, they are more remarkable when you consider his competitive age and the countless distractions that befall celebrity athletes of his stature.

During the Phelps era, swimming has supplanted gymnastics to share top billing with track and field. While the 100 meter men's final on the track remains the glamour event of the Olympic Games, “any race with Phelps” has been tied for second in popularity since 2004. His races have been moved into late-evening time slots to provide for maximum TV viewing audiences, and global marketers like Visa, Procter & Gamble, and Subway have built entire campaigns around his pursuits. When Visa held the first media availability with him on Sunday, following his final Olympic performance, it was attended by 250 media members, live streamed around the world, and carried in its entirety by Bloomberg, Yahoo, and USAToday.com, among others.

That level of attention is tough for anyone to deal with – and like anyone, Phelps has shown himself to be human. He's lost races - not often - and he's certainly stumbled with the trappings of youth and celebrity. That's hardly surprising for a man who has spent his youth grinding out the rigors of a sport which requires absolute discipline and singular focus. But if you consider how powerful he has been as a marketing idol in spite of that, it tells you something fundamental about both his accomplishments and the value we place on sports as a culture.  

I've been fortunate in my career to work closely with some of the world's great sportsmen and blessed with a front-row seat to historic performances -- and the unique pressures these great champions face off the field of play. From the elegantly dominant Roger Federer to the iconoclastic Andre Agassi, to improbable NBA MVPs Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki – I've seen superb athletes wrestle with the pressures of their celebrity and with defining the legacy of a great career.

The latter is perhaps as tough as the former. Federer has complemented his brilliant career with a significant, yet understated, role as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Agassi has devoted his influence to building college preparatory academy in his hometown of Las Vegas, literally lifting up a generation of at-risk youth.

Phelps' credentials in the pool and as a marketing juggernaut are unimpeachable.  But how he segues into the next phase of his life will be critical to defining his true legacy. Taking cues from other great champions who have successfully established a legacy of impact, these key themes should have a familiar ring:

  • Resist the urge to compete in every race. Channel your energy into a single cause or effort for maximum impact.
  • Make a personal commitment to success. Give as much time to it as you do money – that's how you will get others to join your team.
  • Find a great coach. The marketplace is littered with thousands of athlete and celebrity "foundations" that lack the operational expertise to actually help solve the social problems they seek to address. Hire and partner with professional organizations who've been there and can make you a champion of your cause.

JJ Carter is president and senior partner for the US West region at Fleishman-Hillard.

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