Price of the Pinnacle

The following is a piece I wrote four years ago while at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism about Olympians’ journey to the top:

Once every four years, athletic competitors capture the world’s attention during the Olympics. Millions of viewers watch as fans become worshippers and teens become overnight sensations. The event is easily considered the pinnacle of an athletic career. In this year’s London Olympics, more than 10,000 athletes from 204 countries competed. But of those thousands of athletes, fewer than 10 percent went home with hardware. Years of sacrifice and endless hours of training created priceless memories but at a cost.

The trials and tribulations of training aren’t the only struggles that accompany an athlete’s journey to the top. Each step of the way carries a price tag, and some are more capable to afford the journey than the rest. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian with 19 medals, is one of the few Olympians who reaped financial benefits just from participating in the games. As stated in Forbes, his agent, Peter Carlisle, projected in 2008 that the swimmer could earn up to $100 million in sponsors in his lifetime.

“I guess it pays off for some of them like [Michael] Phelps and [Ryan] Lochte and gymnastic girls,” said Jake Herbert who wrestled in the 2012 London Olympics. “If you’re a wrestler or a speed-walker or a water polo player and you don’t get a medal, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh’… If I got a medal maybe it would have been a different story.”

Herbert’s story started when he was a child. The Pittsburgh native began wrestling at an early age because his dad taught him, as he was a high school champion wrestler himself. And for 27 years, wrestling is all Herbert’s known. He graduated from North Allegheny High School as state champ and went on to wrestle at Northwestern University.

It wasn’t until the middle of his collegiate career around 2006 that making the Olympics became his dream. He had his first shot in 2008. He red-shirted for a year and participated in the Olympic Trials but did not make the U.S. team. Since he was still part of the NCAA, Herbert could not take money from any sponsor or organization. He funded his training by teaching private lessons and got support from his parents.

“We figured he didn’t cost us anything for college, so what the heck,” said Kelly Herbert, Jake’s mother. Jake, one of three children, got a full scholarship to the Big Ten school.

Three years after graduating from Northwestern, Herbert qualified for the Olympics. While training, he had money coming in from USA Wrestling. He got an annual stipend of $1,000 a month for being the number one wrestler in the country in 2009, 2011 and 2012. When he dropped to second in the nation in 2010, he received $500 a month.

“It was basically USA Wrestling saying congrats, you’re the number one wrestler in the nation for us; that’s what you have to train and live off of,” the 6-foot-1 inch wrestler said.

The base pay Herbert received was more than his coach and roommate Andy Hrovat got when he competed in the 2008 Olympics. And today for Olympians in training?

“They get more sponsorships,” said Hrovat, 32, who currently makes about $20,000 a year. “Guys are able to train full-time and don’t have to be college coaches.”

While training, Hrovat had money coming in from sponsorships and earned prize money from placing in various tournaments and working wrestling camps. Similarly, Herbert gets $2,000 a year from one of his sponsors, ASICS, an athletic apparel and footwear company, and has a deal with Cliff Keen Athletic, a wrestling wear company. Herbert also looked to other families in his hometown for a commitment of about $2,000 a year to help fund his way to the Olympics.

“It’s hard,” Herbert said. “You have to do fundraising and get sponsorships. If it wasn’t for five or six families back in Pittsburgh who I know very well, I wouldn’t be able to do it… I’m very fortunate to have that.”

When the training stopped and the Olympics came, Herbert received additional perks. His trip to London was completely paid for. He got loads of free gear, so much that he’ll “never be able to wear it all.” His mother said she got a $1,000 credit card from Proctor and Gamble to help pay for the trip to London. However, Herbert did have to fundraise in order to have his own personal coach and training partner travel overseas.

Living the Dream Medal Fund is a non-profit program that offers financial incentives to the nation’s top wrestlers. It awarded stipends to those who medaled in this year’s World Championships and summer games. For the Olympics, this wrestling program offered $250,000 for a gold medal, $50,000 for a silver, and $25,000 for a bronze, but Herbert would see no such reward. At the 2012 games, he placed seventh. At 185 pounds, he defeated Cuba’s Humberto Arencibia in a tight match that came down to the final seconds and then lost to Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan after a controversial call. And just like that, it was over.

“It’s totally worth it,” he said. “But now you have to start over again. I don’t know; it’s weird… I hope the Olympics aren’t the pinnacle of my life. I’d like to do a lot better things than just wrestle, like I hope I make a better husband and I make a better father. Those are the things that are going to keep you happy in life.”

Herbert has time to decide what he wants to do before the 2016 Olympics. In the meantime, he is relying on stints like wrestling camps for income. He said he makes between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. Recently he returned from a camp in Alaska where he earned between $1,000 and $2,000.

“Right now it’s hitting me pretty hard,” said Herbert who has shoulder surgery coming up in January. “This is the first time I’m ever not wanting to do it… I know I’m one of the best wrestlers in the world. I’ve proven it. It’s a matter if I still have the drive and desire to do it.”

Ed Hula, 61, never competed in the Olympics but he’s been covering the games for two decades as the Editor and Founder of Around the Rings, a website delivering Olympics news since 1992. Hula started planning for the London Olympics ever since they were announced seven years ago. He said the preparation he faces might mirror what the athletes themselves go through.

“It’s a big whirlwind and it’s a spotlight for 17 days – three weeks and then one day, the day after, it’s over,” he said. “It’s as if someone flips a switch and it’s over, the lights are out the excitement, the energy just sort of evaporates.”

U.S. Olympians who medaled in this year’s games received a bonus of $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. While this sum covers some of the expenses spent while training, it still not enough. Putting it into perspective Hula said jokingly, “How long would that last at Northwestern?”

On a more serious note, Hula said “new” and “different” discussions concern “whether athletes at the Olympic games should receive some sort of prize money, some sort of payment, some sort of share of the several billion dollars that are raised during the Olympic games.” And that’s not all. “There’s also athletes raising questions about why they can’t wear their sponsor’s gear, their sponsors logo at the games. If they were able to do that, they’d make more money from their sponsorships” because sometimes the money coming in just isn’t sufficient.

“You have to get to the elite level to have any chance of getting any type of support whether it’s sponsorships support or a training grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” he said. “For someone who’s just aspiring to do that, you have to pretty much do it on your own.”

And yet even some gold medalists are on their own. Rebecca Johnston played forward for the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team. She won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She received a bonus of $20,000 from the Canadian Olympic Committee for placing first, but for Johnston it’s about the memories, not the money.

“It gives me the shivers every time I think about it,” the 23 year old said. “It took me a long time after the Olympics to process it. It seems surreal to me and to be able to have that gold medal and to be able to show it to people, to have that memory, is so, so special.”

Today Johnston continues to train as she prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia. She lives with her boyfriend and his family in London, Ontario Canada. Three to four times a week she drives nearly two hours just to get to practice in Toronto, travel expenses that come out of her own pocket. She works part-time at a health and science foundation that pays $12 an hour. Besides the extra income, she said the job is a way for her to gain experience in the working world.

“I’m experimenting with jobs and what I like and hopefully I’ll figure out what I want to do in the next couple of years,” the Cornell University graduate said. “You can’t play and have a full-time job. It doesn’t work, you miss too much.”

Hula mentioned that post-Olympic life has gained increasing attention from the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee as they are looking into providing some sort of helpful transition between the athlete’s career and the working world.

For right now, though, Johnston’s main focus is on life as an athlete. Starting next year she begins formal Olympic training. During the last Olympic year, Johnston got around $2,600 a month from AthletesCAN, an organization supporting Canadian national team athletes. In Johnston’s case, it covered expenses like housing and travel to tournaments. She could also make at least a couple thousand dollars a year making appearances at events for team Canada. Most recently she played in the Four Nations Cup in Finland, an all-expense paid trip.

“It’s nice to be able to see different places and to not have to pay for anything,” she said.

While perks like these may never add up to Phelp’s financial status and his ability to rake in millions of dollars, there is one thing Herbert and Johnston have in common with the swimming sensation: the right to call themselves Olympians.

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