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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Phelps lands first sponsor since infamous bong photo

Michael Phelps sports the new H20 Audio's Interval with a built-in Surge waterproof headphones for use during training.
Michael Phelps sports the new H20 Audio's Interval with a built-in Surge waterproof headphones for use during training.

The fallout from Michael Phelps' infamous bong photo published last winter in a British tabloid appears to be clearing.

Phelps is set to announce his first endorsement since the furor over the photo began. It could be the beginning of a comeback for him on Madison Avenue.

Remember how the 14-time Olympic champion listened to music in warm-ups before winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games? Well, Phelps and H20 Audio are set to announce a multiyear partnership Tuesday for the company's line of waterproof sports headphones and accessories.

H20 will feature Phelps in a summer ad campaign, says founder and chief executive Kristian Rauhala.

In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, Phelps said H20's in-ear, waterproof Surge headphones have helped improve his training sessions. They're integrated with the Interval carrying case housing an iPod Shuffle music player. Phelps says he attaches the apparatus to his swim cap with a magnetic strip.

Unlike other products he's tried, Phelps says the headphones don't fall out when he's pushing off the wall in turns.

"Now I feel like I can incorporate music in my warm-ups. It allows me to warm up better," Phelps says. "I can push off as hard as I want to — and still hear perfectly clear in the water."

After pondering whether he wanted to return to competitive swimming, Phelps has his sights set on the 2012 London Games.

He's lost the extra 20 pounds he put on during his post-Olympic victory lap. In his second competition since returning from suspension, Phelps won two out of four races at the Santa Clara International Grand Prix last weekend in Northern California.

Phelps notices Terrell Owens of the Buffalo Bills and Ray Lewis of his hometown Baltimore Ravens listening to music on headphones while warming up. So what's the deal with athletes and headphones Michael?

"The (music) helps me put myself in my own world. I can focus on what I'm doing. And tune out what everybody else is doing — no matter what."

The endorsement came together because Phelps was looking to take his music "into the pool," says Rauhala.

The waterproof headphones can also help runners and other athletes, he says. "The sweat gets inside a runner's headphone and they break. That's very common."

Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and surfer Laird Hamilton also have endorsement deals with the six-year old company.

H20 will splash Phelps's image across product packaging and retail displays at Apple Stores, Target, Sports Authority and Best Buy this summer.

Cereal maker Kellogg's dumped Phelps after the photo surfaced. But other sponsors such as Visa, Speedo and Omega have stuck by the embattled star despite a three-month suspension from USA Swimming.