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Going Broke While Going for the Gold

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Aly Pain has made many sacrifices for her husband's skeleton racing career. One of them is her 1988 Calgary limited edition Walkman, which she pawned to buy food for her kids.

jeff and aly pain

Ronda Kaysen: In his 15-year career, her husband, Jeff Pain, has competed in three Olympic games and taken home a silver medal. But his enormous success hasn't come without a steep financial toll. Footing the bill for a single skeleton season can cost as much as $30,000. One sled can set a racer back as much as $10,000.

Sponsorship opportunities for skeleton are rare and, until 2008 when Canada began paying Olympic medalists a $1,500 a month stipend, there was virtually no reliable income from Jeff's skeleton racing.

The Pains have two young boys and lived below the poverty line for three years, living off Canadian government assistance while Jeff spent his winters traveling to competitions. He'd be gone six months at a time, paying for all his travel expenses and equipment. In addition to the Walkman -- which Aly got for carrying the torch in the 1988 Calgary games -- they've pawned watches, tools, pots and pans.

"To this day, I don't know how we paid the mortgage," Aly told momlogic. "We made it through because we both strongly believed in what we were doing. You can make it through almost anything if you believe in what you're doing."

Aly and Jeff's story is the story of thousands of Olympic athletes, the ones whose faces don't grace the side of a cereal box or a billboard. They are the elite athletes who train without sponsorships, buying their own equipment, paying for their own tickets to competitions and supporting a family with a career that oftentimes pays nothing at all.

Sarah Schleper, an American alpine skier with a 2-year-old son, sells ski equipment on eBay to fund her sport. Since she is on the Ski Team's B-list, she has to foot the bill for her travel expenses, food and lodging.

Figure skater Mark Ladwig juggles 10 credit cards to stay afloat and has even slept in his car. He's worked as a waiter, busboy and Zamboni driver. In the past 13 months, his wife has been laid off from two jobs and the couple had their first baby. 

"The economic crisis has trickled down from corporations to us," Noelle Pikus-Pace, a skeleton racer who knits hats for cash, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Running a business while training and traveling in Europe has created more stress, but I've been able to make ends meet. This will open doors for my future."

Pikus-Pace, who has a 2-year-old at home, hopes her Olympic success will help in sales of her SnowFire hats. Already, she's sold more than 2,000 of the fleece-lined beenies for as much as $30 a piece. She lost her Speedo sponsorship after the company decided to focus on summer sports. But she is getting help from one sponsor: Pampers. The company is paying for her daughter's diapers this Olympic season.

For the lucky few who do get to the financial promised land, the payoff is staggering. Snowboarding superstar Shaun White took home $7.5 million in sponsorships last year. And Schleper's star teammate, Lindsey Vonn, made $2.5 million. After the medals she collected at this year's games, her earnings will most likely skyrocket. But unless you're the star player of the most popular sport in the games, don't count on seeing sponsors come knocking.

Even a medal in a popular sport doesn't spell support. Even snowboarder Chris Klug's Olympic bronze medal didn't loosen the coffers of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Federation, which didn't offer him any money to train for the Vancouver games. So, he set out on his own and cobbled together a sponsorship from an unlikely source: Hooters. The restaurant chain known for busty waitresses funded training for him and three other teammates.

"Everybody on the circuit got a kick out of it," Klug told "Whether you're in the Netherlands or training at Mt. Hood, everybody seems to love it."

The economy has only made a dire situation worse. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, which governs the U.S. Ski Team, cut salaries by 10 percent across the board after it struggled to find new business partners. The British ski and snowboard federation went bankrupt earlier this year. And Stephen Colbert was peddling for the U.S. Skating Team on his Vancouverage Olympic special.

Aly and Jeff Pain wrote a book, The Business of Marriage and Medals  (which comes out next month) about their struggle -- in part to bring in some much needed cash. Jeff placed ninth in Vancouver and because he didn't make it to the podium, his $1,500 stipend will vanish at the end of the month. Aly expects this to be an especially lean year for the family.

But it will be the last year. When he comes home from Vancouver next week, he'll hang up his skeleton sled and retire. "I can't do it anymore. I can't be a single parent any longer," Aly said. "I am burnt out. I am at the end of my rope, I am done."

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3 comments so far | Post a comment now
GPC February 24, 2010, 12:21 PM

Well maybe if athletes can’t afford their hobby, venture or whatever you want to call it, maybe they should get a job. Like the rest of us. If we average folk can’t afford something, we can’t do it…I don’t see why athletes deserve special treatment. Do they live in a special world where the expectation is that someone feeds and cloth the family while the husband gets to do everything else but help support his responsibilities. We don’t get free Pampers if we’re unemployed pursuing something that doesn’t make money. Maybe her hubby should have got a job, and saved up to enable him to perform in his venture. Like the rest of us have to. I really don’t understand what this person is complaining about…welcome to the real world where everything doesn’t focus on the individual. What planet do these people live on?

sherry February 24, 2010, 12:50 PM

I totally agree! Dont cry because you get government assistance while you practice your “sport” I have to work at a real job so other “needy” people can get assistance.. dont tell me you dont get paid if your using the system to your advantage!

adelaide dancing February 24, 2010, 2:52 PM

wow, some very touching stories, it takes a lot of guts to compete at such a level!

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