Reuters - For the first time in his career, Michael Phelps is preparing for an Olympics without the support of longtime sponsor Speedo, and is instead wearing a suit designed by Aqua Sphere, a virtual unknown in swim racing that is making its Games debut at Rio de Janeiro next year.
Phelps has helped Aqua Sphere design a range of products in his name, called "MP", with the initials to adorn the suit, goggles and cap he will wear at Rio should he qualify for the US team.
The 30-year-old, who came out of retirement last year having already amassed a record 18 Olympic gold medals at three summer Games, used the Aqua Sphere suit at the US Winter National Championships earlier this month.
"When he announced he was coming back, there wasn't a swimwear company that didn't aggressively court him," said Phelps' agent, Peter Carlisle, who is a managing director at talent agency Octagon, a unit of Interpublic Group.
"The offer that stood out as being the most compelling was launching his own brand with Aqua Sphere."
For both Phelps and Aqua Sphere, the stakes are high as they pursue a slice of the estimated $1 billion in annual sales of competitive and fitness swimwear worldwide.
Rio is the first Olympics that will feature a technical racing suit made by Aqua Sphere, which Fina, the international governing body of swimming and water sports, has approved.
The brand faces some formidable competition from the likes of Speedo and other established swimsuit makers, such as TYR and Arena. But if Phelps performs like he has in the past, Aqua Sphere could have a chance to break through, according to David Abrutyn, executive vice president at sports marketing firm Bruin Sports Capital.
"Everybody loves a comeback story, and Aqua Sphere could stand to benefit considerably," Abrutyn said.
When asked about Phelps earlier this month, at an event in New York, Speedo International president David Robinson noted that Phelps became the greatest Olympian while wearing Speedo.
"We understood he was retiring, and at that point we moved on and started to look at the new fresh talent that was coming through," Robinson told Reuters.