What Michael Phelps Loves About His Under Armour Ad, and Why He’s Never Worn Nike

Our chat with the Olympic legend ahead of his swan song in Rio

BALTIMORE, Md.—Michael Phelps and Under Armour were, in a sense, born at the same moment.

The performance sports apparel brand was founded here in Baltimore in 1996 by Kevin Plank. That same year, Phelps—then an 11-year-old kid from the Baltimore suburbs—began to train under coach Bob Bowman at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

The rest is history.

In 2000, at age 15, Phelps made the U.S. Olympic team for the Sydney Games, and while he didn't medal, he did finish fifth in the 200-meter butterfly. The following spring, still 15 years old, he became the youngest swimmer ever to set a world record—in the same 200-meter butterfly event. In 2004, in Athens, he won his first eight Olympic medals, including six golds, beginning a run that has netted him a record 22 Olympic medals in all, and a staggering 18 golds—including a record eight golds (in eight events) at the Beijing Games in 2008.

The most decorated Olympian in the history of the planet will almost certainly add to his total in Rio, which he firmly says—and you can believe him this time—will be his last Olympics.

Under Armour's growth, of course, wasn't as meteoric. It takes more time for companies to rule the world. But in the sports apparel business, UA is now a solid No. 2 to Nike, and gaining all the time. It had sales of $3.96 billion in 2015, up 28 percent from the year before, and forecasts sales of $7.5 billion by 2018. (That's still just a fraction of Nike's sales, currently about $30 billion a year.) Just as important, it has that buzz—the thrum of an underdog nipping at the master's heels.

UA attributes much of its success to relentless innovation and a singular vision. (In a mid-'90s world obsessed with loose-fitting and low-cost, UA went with tight-fitting and premium.) But it can also be credited to the brand's endorsers, and how they're framed in the advertising. This is a company that chooses wisely, and then helps to mold an athlete's image carefully, focusing on the journey rather than the destination. 

In 2013, UA took a chance on Stephen Curry for less than $4 million a year, after Nike balked, and now has him locked down through 2024—in what may prove to be the best signing since Nike recruited Jordan. UA also hit the jackpot with golfer Jordan Spieth, signing him to a 10-year deal shortly before he won two majors last year and rocketed to the No. 1 ranking.

Phelps is a little different, of course. He's not an athlete who's in the spotlight every day, or every month. He mostly gets attention quadrennially, during the Olympics. But UA is clearly going big with Phelps this year, ahead of what should be a closely watched and hopefully heartwarming trip to Rio.

A UA endorser since 2010, Phelps got a hero's welcome when he arrived at the brand's Locust Point headquarters here in Baltimore on Tuesday. He spoke to the media, offered a glimpse into his workout routine and raved about his new Under Armour ad from Droga5—a beautiful, haunting 90-second tribute that shows Phelps at his most raw and solitary, summing up his decades of cold pools and sacrifice out of the spotlight.

"For me, it's without question an honor to have my own spot," Phelps, 30, told Adweek as he reflected on his place in the UA advertising pantheon, which has famously included stars like Curry, Misty Copeland, Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen. "To have a spot done like this one was, it's remarkable. It shows the raw things I've gone through to get to the point where I'm at. And that's something a lot of the public hasn't seen." 

He added: "It brought tears to my eyes, it brought tears to [fiancée] Nicole's eyes. My mother, without question, tears—multiple times during the commercial. And the music makes it, too. I think it's a deep commercial, and it's really incredible how they did it." 

It really did make Phelps cry, too. In a sly bit of in-house content creation, UA filmed Phelps and Nicole watching the ad for the first time. She is practically weeping by the end, and Phelps himself wipes away a tear. Check out that footage here: 

While Under Armour is still well behind Nike in terms of revenue, some would argue it has leveled the playing field in terms of quality advertising. Where Nike has long excelled with a combination of flash and humor, UA goes for a gritty, lived feel—getting viewers closer to the beauty and brutality of high-level sports. 

Asked if he thought Under Armour had equalled or surpassed Nike in terms of exciting advertising, Phelps diplomatically half-dodged the question—saying simply that no one should underestimate Plank, the former University of Maryland football captain who started Under Armour from nothing. 

"I was telling Kevin while I was here, I'm amazed at how much they've been able to do, even just in the last year," Phelps said. "Kevin is literally one of the biggest visionaries I've ever met in my entire life. For him, the sky is the absolute limit. I'm sure he will do everything and anything to get to No. 1, if he's not there now." 

As for Nike? Well, Phelps says he's never even tried on one of their sneakers. 

"For me, growing up in Baltimore, Under Armour is the sports line. It's what I grew up with my whole life," he said. "I don't know another brand. To be honest, I have never worn a pair of Nikes in my entire life. I couldn't even wear Nikes when I was with Speedo, before Under Armour. I've literally never tried on a pair of Nike shoes." (He later backtracks on this a little, and admits to having worn them on the podium when Nike was a team sponsor. But he insists he's never done so recreationally.) 

Asked whether he has an expanded role with UA during this Olympic year, Phelps said just wants to do anything he can to help Plank succeed.

"I think if you ask all the athletes—we'll do anything we can to help promote his brand," he said. "They don't have to ask me to put on a shirt. I walk out of the house every day in shorts and a T-shirt, or a sweatshirt and sweats, a pair of sneakers. It's every day. You can wear a quarter zip to dinner, you can wear a polo to dinner, you can wear a button-down to dinner. They have literally everything. It's comfortable, and it's what I live in."

He added with a smile: "I'm a good shoe salesman, too. I know all the shoes. You have any shoe questions?"

It's been a long four years since London 2012, the last time Phelps was squarely in the public eye—and, in his own estimation, underperformed at the Games because of a lack of motivation. Most gallingly, he was out-touched at the wall in the final of the 200-meter butterfly, one of his longtime signature events, losing by 5/100ths of a second. Phelps is normally the guy who out-touches his rivals, and that loss clearly still bothers him—he mentioned it several times Tuesday—even though he did win six medals, including four golds, in London. 

The new Droga commercial certainly reintroduces Phelps to the public in style. But the backstory is different this time. Phelps, who will soon be married and is expecting his first child in May, says he has never been so happy in his life, or so committed to swimming—and it is showing in his performances. (Astonishingly, Phelps claims he's never really given 100 percent in the pool, not even in Beijing in 2008, when he won those eight gold medals, a record for a single Games. That performance, he says, was more about having banked strength through years of preparation than a 100 percent effort on the day. This, by the way, is the depth of Phelps' confidence—this weird pride he has sometimes taken in being the best while not having to try that hard.) 

Phelps may well have to give 100 percent to make the podium in August. And it's clear this isn't the ambivalent Phelps of London. He is undoubtedly past his prime, and has nothing to prove, yet this time he's not using either as an excuse. In other words, it's fully believable that this is the legendary champion giving everything for one last shot at glory. 

That's a great story, one UA can squarely get behind, and may help explain why the brand released the new spot so early—a full five months before the Games kick off in August. 

"As marketers, we've seen a lot of film," says Adrienne Lofton, UA's svp of global brand marketing. "And when we saw this [new spot] out of the can—rough, color not done—we all got the chills. From Kevin on down, we were blown away, because it represents Michael and everything he's done in his career. It allows us to honor him, and take a moment and say: No matter what, pre-Rio, he never stopped working. He never stopped pushing."