Not long after Michael Phelpswon eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics four years ago, news stories bubbled to the surface that suggested Phelps could earn up to $100 million in corporate endorsements.
Another American gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer paid close attention.
Natalie Coughlin, then 25, a native of Northern California, had become the first American female athlete to win six medals in one Olympic Games.
Coughlin won a gold medal, two silver medals and three bronze medals in Beijing. She was not Phelpsian, but she was successful.
A smaller handful of companies joined existing sponsors to offer sponsorships to Coughlin. These sponsorships were modest, especially when compared to those given to Phelps, but they enabled Coughlin to continue doing what she had been good at for 20 years.
“I love swimming,” she said recently, “but I don’t love it enough to hold a part-time job while trying to train five or six hours a day.”
Coughlin was speaking via telephone from London, where she had just competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. She swam a leg in a preliminary round for the United States in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, an event in which the Americans placed third in the finals.
Coughlin is not exactly blazing a new trail here, and, at 29, she is still young enough to continue swimming competitively. Jason Lezak, 36, a four-time Olympic gold medallist and the father of two children, also swam in London, helping the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay win a silver medal. (More from CNBC.com: Missy Franklin is "Female Michael Phelps?")
Matt Farrell, the chief marketing officer for USA Swimming, said the national governing body for the sport, athletes have had much more success in recent Olympics at stretching their careers well past graduation from college.
A year ago, USA Swimming started the Swimpact program, in which swimmers can increase the financial support provided by the organization by committing to a training plan and making two appearances in the community to promote swimming.
“Through a combination of corporate partner support and increased funding from USA Swimming, we have seen more post-graduate athletes continuing to compete at the highest levels,” Farrell said in a statement. “This is a trend we are committed to supporting, as retaining veteran talent is truly a benefit to our competitive efforts.”
Coughlin received a bronze medal, her 12th medal in three Olympics, tying her with the swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most career medals by an American woman. She is certain she would not have made it to London without corporate backing.
“This is a job, it definitely is a job,” she said, “although people might hear `job,’ and think it has a bad connotation. I don’t think of it that way at all.”
Coughlin lists (and thanks) eight corporate sponsors on her Web site, including Speedo, the swimwear manufacturer. She was also sponsored by O’Neill 365, an active-wear designer, and the California Dried Plum Board.
She also picked up the support of BMW, Omega Watches,TD Ameritrade , H2O Audio and Pantene, a manufacturer of hair-care products that is an arm of Proctor & Gamble . Coughlin will not say how much money each sponsorship—or all of them combined—are worth.
But she does say this, “I’m definitely not starving eating Ramen noodles. But I’m not flying around in a private jet, either.”
Coughlin pointed out she won all 12 Olympic medals after she left the University of California at Berkeley as a full-time student. (She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2005, one year after she won two golds, two silvers and a bronze at the Athens Olympics.)
She would have had to have landed what she called “a real job” had she been a true amateur, as Olympic athletes were supposed to be no more than a quarter-century ago.
As a result, Coughlin thinks she would not have been able to keep swimming at an elite level.
But there was more: As Coughlin swept to success in Athens, her life story became more well known, and she became appealing to corporate clients because she was, besides a gold medallist, also articulate, intelligent, interesting and attractive.
“You have a quote-unquote brand,” she said. “You have to stick with that brand.”
She can look for sponsors who feel, as she put it, “authentic—that has been the biggest thing.” She also said, “It’s really different with each sponsor. Earlier in my career, yes, it was harder to say no. Later on, not so much.”
And if they don’t feel authentic, she said, “You don’t spend as much time on a negotiation. Also, we made a lot of those tough decisions earlier in my career.”
Other opportunities have popped up along the way. Coughlin appeared in 2009 as a celebrity contestant on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” She was a guest of Jay Leno’s earlier this year on “The Tonight Show,”. She is available, at $25,000 to $50,000, for speaking engagements, clinics, corporate appearance and autograph signings.
But she has continued preparing for swimming competitions like the U.S. Olympic Trials and Olympic Games by running, doing Pilates, weight training, circuit training—and, oh, yes, swimming a lot of laps.
As her career has continued, Coughlin has appeared in print and broadcast commercials, most notably chic beachwear made by Speedo, whose suits she has worn since she started swimming competitively at five years old. But she is, as always, a swimmer first.
After she won the bronze medal, a photo of Coughlin, Lezak and Anthony Ervin, a 31-year-old U.S. men’s swimmer, sitting in the stands at the Olympic swimming venue popped up on her Twitter feed. The caption: Oldies but Goodies.
Coughlin said of Phelps, “He definitely has done some amazing things with sponsors,” but adds of her own, “They’ve allowed me to continue to swim.”