By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009
USA Swimming slapped Michael Phelps with a three-month suspension from competition and withdrew his monthly stipend yesterday in the latest and strongest response to the furor over a published photo that appeared to show him using marijuana.
The decision from the sport's national governing body means Phelps will not be able to compete at a handful of popular U.S. grand prix events in the coming months, but he will remain eligible for the U.S. championships in Indianapolis in July, the qualifying event for the world championships in Rome.
"Michael Phelps is the greatest star our sport has ever had and he is a role model and hero for hundreds of thousands of kids," USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus said in a phone interview. "Under our code of conduct, we felt we had an obligation to address this issue, to send a message to Michael and to our membership."
The ban was announced shortly after Kellogg Co. said it would not renew its endorsement deal with Phelps, saying his behavior "was not consistent with the image of Kellogg."
Phelps, 23, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, acknowledged "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" after a photo in which he appeared to be using a marijuana pipe was published in a British tabloid over the weekend.
The Kellogg deal expires at the end of February.
"Michael accepts these decisions and understands their point of view," his management company, McLean-based Octagon, said in a statement. "He feels bad he let anyone down. He's also encouraged by the thousands of comments he's received from his fans and the support from his many sponsors. He intends to work hard to regain everyone's trust."
Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps had returned to heavy training this week and would begin two-a-day workouts next week. He said Phelps had planned to open his season at a grand prix event in Austin in early March, but would revise his plans.
"As a member of USA Swimming, I would expect our governing body to take action on this," Bowman said. "I do think they made a strong statement to Michael and to others, and it does change our plans. . . . We will not be going to the meet in Austin and we will not be doing anything later."
Bowman said Phelps had been extremely upset by the uproar over the published photo.
"He's back in the water and happy in training, and I think that's a very good sign," Bowman said. "I was very worried about him earlier in the week, but I think he has stood up and done what he has needed to do."
Wielgus said Phelps was made aware of the disciplinary action before it was announced and was supportive of the decision. Wielgus said he decided to penalize Phelps for violating the organization's code of conduct after discussing the matter with the USA Swimming board of directors, the leadership of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the USOC ombudsman.
Wielgus said all parties agreed the three-month suspension was appropriate based on the circumstances and previous sanctions for other violations. Wielgus said there was no attempt to ensure that Phelps would be eligible to compete at the U.S. championships.
"There was no contriving to have it work out that way," Wielgus said. "We felt it was the right period of time. . . . We didn't arrive at it arbitrarily."
Phelps will also lose the monthly stipend provided to all members of the U.S. national team during his suspension, which began yesterday. Given his multimillion-dollar contracts with various companies, most of which have agreed to support him, the financial loss will not be significant.