No winners will be crowned on the first official day of event action at the 2017 World Series of Poker, yet poker and sports fans alike enjoyed an early railbird treat – the arrival of record-shattering Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps as a participant in Event #2, $10,000 Tag Team No-Limit Hold'em Championship.
Phelps, an infrequent but enthusiastic participant in major poker events over the past several years, found an invite onto a powerhouse team, one of the event's likely favorites in the chase for early-event gold. Phelps' team includes three of poker's most notable players: Antonio Esfandiari, Brian Rast, and Phelps' long-time friend, Jeff Gross. “We have a couple of studs,” said Phelps, concurring with the opinion of many onlookers regarding his team's chances.
As for how the team came together, that centered around Gross, an Ann Arbor, Mich. native who first met Phelps at the University of Michigan. Gross and Phelps became good friends, and Gross later roomed with Phelps in the Baltimore area. “JG [Gross] I've known forever,” said Phelps. “Antonio I met through him, and Rasty [Brian Rast] I just got to know.”
For Phelps in particular, it represents a best chance to date for a coveted WSOP bracelet, or, as he termed it, a “chance to add a little more hardware to my collection.” That collection is the greatest of all time, in Olympic terms. Over the course of five Summer Olympics gatherings, ending in 2016, Phelps claimed 28 medals, 23 of them gold. Both numbers are by far the most in Olympic history.
Yet gold comes in multiple forms, and Phelps smiles, his competitive nature flashing, when he chats about the opportunity here at the WSOP. Phelps' ex-roommate, Gross, is also still searching for that first WSOP bracelet, though Gross has over a million dollars in WSOP earnings and much more than that in other live and online tourney play. Rast and Esfandiari are winner's circle veterans; each already owns three WSOP bracelets.
Phelps also hinted that the tag-team fun likely wouldn't be his only appearance at the Rio this summer. He admitted to looking to play a couple of more events later in the series, with one tourney at the top of the list. “I'd like to play the Main [Event], he acknowledged.
It's a tight time squeeze that prevents Phelps playing a deeper WSOP schedule. For Michael, those hours remain at a premium, even though he's retired for good from competitive swimming. He admitted that being able to take part in the tag-team Event #2 was just a fortunate circumstance of having a bit more free time at the moment, time he hopes continues to be available in mid-July when that Main Event rolls around.
Those time demands include growing business responsibilities and his ongoing work with his own Michael Phelps Foundation, which emphasizes water safety for all, and children in particular. The Michael Phelps Foundation now has a presence in all 50 US states, a fact in which Phelps takes personal pride. The foundation is an active partner with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Special Olympics, and Phelps' own foundation got its start working with Boys & Girls Clubs back in 2010. Since then, as its home site notes, the Michael Phelps Foundation continues to promote active healthy lives, especially for children.
As Phelps noted, “Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children under 14.” It's a cause he holds dear, and his ever-present foundation work was at the front of his mind, even here at the WSOP. “It's crazy to think I'm more busy now than when I was training,” said Phelps. “It's been a wild ride, to see where life will take me.”
Fronting that foundation indeed takes up most of his time these days, along with other ventures, such as his “MP” swimwear brand, featuring the latest in friction-reducing swimwear for competitive athletes, plus high-tech add-ons for other swim-centric activities, such as goggles and snorkels.
It's all part of the continually busy Michael Phelps life, though there still has to be some time for fun. That's what his trip to this the 48th annual WSOP event is all about, including the rare chance to “hang with the boys,” his poker-world friends. And, of course, that looming “hardware” opportunity.