Flat Broke and a US Olympian, but Worth It

Dear Friends of My Olympic Dream and Fellow Dreamers,

The past year and a half plus since winning a Silver Medal with my teammates at the Beijing Olympics in fencing has been such a tremendous ride in many ways, but also one of considerable financial challenge.

In deciding to train full-time for the London 2012 Games and really “go for the gold” I knew there would be challenges and also exciting opportunities!  I wasn’t sure how I would be able to “make it work” living in New York City with little to no income, but I had faith that “going for it” would be worthwhile adventure.  I also made a leap of faith that I’d be able to succeed in the long-shot goal of being sponsored by a company as a small sport athlete in a low visibility sport.   And of course, there is no guarantee I will qualify for London.  So much has to go right still.

Before the previous two Olympics (Athens and Beijing) I had worked full-time as a teacher and then at Teach For America, sometimes working  up to 80 hours a week while fitting in training 3-5 hours a day.

For me to realistically try to win the gold, I knew it would take some extraordinary measures to improve my fencing which couldn’t happen while working full-time.    In the beginning, things went fairly smoothly.   But after a year or so when I had exhausted the money I saved from working the previous four years plus the $15,000 Olympic bonus I received for the Silver Medal in Beijing,  let’s just say things got a whole lot heavier and urgent when that happened.   I recently read a statistic on the US Olympic Committee website that 85% of US Olympic hopefuls make $15,000 dollars or less a year…that sounds about right!

Over the past six months, I have known the pressure of struggling to pay rent (last month I bounced a rent check for the first time in life), maxing out credit cards ($14,000+ worth of debt right now) and  felt the shame of having to borrow money and to beg for the small money we’re given as athletes when the funds mysteriously don’t arrive when they should .  My rent in NYC, where I live with a roommate in a one bedroom converted to a two is $1350 dollars a month.   My main source of income has been the stipend I get from the US Olympic Committee. I receive $2,000 a month if I’m ranked 16th or better in the world and $1,000 if I’m 17th-30th.  I’m currently ranked 16th in the world and have danced around this number for the past year.   So literally I feel the pressure of fencing for my rent and food each competition!

Each first of the month, I sweat it out to see if my stipend payment will actually come on-time so I can pay my rent.  When it doesn’t arrive, which has happened 3-4 times over the past year, I’m left scrambling to make my rent payment. (Ironically, it is happening again this month…It’s never clear who is to blame…)

I gave myself two years from Beijing to try to set up the conditions that would allow me to pursue the first Gold Medal in US men’s fencing history:

#1 Continued improvement of my fencing (check)
– So far I’m ranked is #1 in USA and my results have improved internationally, but a lot of work to do

#2  Being able to train professionally (almost check)

–          I have an amazing team now at  a gym called Bodhizone which donates my training and physical therapy and I’m fortunate to have one of the best coaches in the world and also great teammates who train hard.

– (the “almost” part) The past 1.5 years I’ve had to spend a lot of time hustling and scrapping to work on visibility, marketing, promotion, PR and creating documents, business plans, networking and other things since that’s a part of acquiring a sponsor…you need to have value as a brand that you can demonstrate so this has certainly taken time from my training, but I now hope to turn my focus more towards fencing.

# 3 financial stability to live (Not a check, but hope)

–          Still a work in progress, but each month I seem to be getting  closer to a financial breakthrough…and currently in some exciting talks with a few companies regarding sponsorship…(hopefully something big to announce soon!)

So far this has been pretty depressing, ehh?   The past two years have also been the most AMAZING of my life!  In pursuing sponsorships, trying to promote my sport while training 5-6 hours a day, I have had the chance to meet amazing people, make tremendous growth in my professional skills, grow and be challenged as a person, and  learn the ins and outs of marketing/PR while brining some amazing new people into my life….

I’ve fenced with President Obama on the White House lawn, spoken on a panel at the United Nations, on Capitol Hill, received in-kind clothing from designers like Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Andrew Buckler and others, been named one of the top-10 bachelors by the NY Post, and one of the hot up and comers by Gotham Magazine and had feature stories in Vanity Fair and other publications.  I have my blog nearing 1,000 reads a day, written a book currently being shopped around to publishing companies by a great literary agent and become a Wilhelmina model (of all things!) and a had a whole host of other adventures.(All things that are pretty rare for a fencer!)

I’ve also been able to do a tremendous amount of good: I’ve Raised close to $50,000 for various charities, spoken to over 15,000 children about achieving their goals and more.

It’s been glamorous, but stressful.   What’s the New York saying, “Flat Broke and Fabulous”? I’m flat-broke and Olympic!  It’s the “new” category, but probably not that new to US Olympians from previous years.  Small sport athletes in the US are the true amateurs.

Only a few months ago, I started to really doubt if I’d be able to make it London since I had almost no money.   I had to get two cavities filled a few weeks ago only to discover that my Olympic insurance doesn’t cover dental, it was $1500 dollars I didn’t have….let’s just say I haven’t paid that bill yet…

What has kept me going has been the tremendous support team I’ve had:  My family, the amazing people at Bodhizone who train me, Paige, Scott, Jeff, Brant, and others (you know who you are!) and so many friends who keep believing in me and encouraging me onward.   There have also been those moments when I see that I’ve been able to impact someone’s life positively or just knowing that I’m getting to experience things most people won’t in their lives.

So I wanted to say, while my bank account is still empty, my cup is truly overflowing with goodness and life.  I appreciate all of it.   This is worth it. I also think some good news (and a sponsor or two) are just around the corner and felt like this was the right time to share some of the struggle.   I know there are many more people struggling far greater than I which is why I always hesitate to share my own tribulations.  When I stop to reflect I know that I’m truly blessed.

Thanks for your support!

Yours in pursuit of the Olympic dream,


25 thoughts on “Flat Broke and a US Olympian, but Worth It

  1. Hey Tim

    I was taken aback to read this blog. As I would say most people would be. I suppose there is the myth than when you have achieved something like an Olympic medal (if you were Irish you would be made for life) is such a big deal that you would not have financial worries. I feel a certain empathy in that I work in theatre and I am broke for much of the time too. However if there was something positive I could suggest it is that you write extremely well and you have a good outlook on life. I like the fact you include details other than competition details and stats lost bags – coffee massages etc! I am sure you have looked into this but surely a sponsor could benefit from you web presence as much status as a competitive Olympian?

    Best wishes my friend – keep fighting the good fight.


  2. Amazing story, thus far, my friend! One that will surely see the fruits of your labour, with your wonderful outlook on life and determined perseverance!

    All the best in your endeavors…soooo looking forward to cheering you on in London — you will get there! (I’ll overlook the fact you’re not Canadian either!)


  3. Hey, Tim,

    I was wondering, is there any place your fellow fencers can donate towards your living expenses or anything of that sort? You do a lot for the sport of fencing, and I think some of us regular old club level fencers across the US might be willing to support you in whatever small or large way we can.

    Thanks & Good Luck

    Purdue Fencing
    River City Fencing

  4. Tim–I was feeling pretty low today, but reading this post really encouraged me. I don’t know you, but I want you to know that it WILL get better. My boyfriend and I have struggled financially ourselves–even going so far as for me to stop fencing for a few years, so that he could keep at it (he is much more skilled than I) and still make ends meet. He and I both are extremely fortunate to have employment–though that could change any day–but no matter what, even with the debt we have that is several times what you listed–we still set aside money for fencing, because it means that much to us. You are not alone! And your determination, focus, and strength of spirit is deeply encouraging. I will see what I can do to help.

    (Also, to Josh–as a Purdue Fencing Alum, who knows what you guys have struggled through with the Club’s own financial and other problems recently–I’m deeply touched that you’re paying it forward.)

  5. Tim,

    why don’t you put a Paypal donation button here? i’m sure some people will be more than happy to contribute something. even 100 people donating $5 each month is $500 total, and your blog readers and supporters definitely goes above just 100 people. I spend $5 on a stupid sandwich, why not donate $5 each month for a worthy athlete.

  6. First of all, congratulations with all your achievements! I am surprised why it is that fencers don’t break into trading positions with (reputable) Wall Street firms. Trading is all about fast-paced reactions in a high pressure environment with a lot of uncertainty. Sounds like fencing, doesn’t it? The junior traders at my firm make $80-150 K per year. The nice thing about this job is: you start early in the day, but when it’s 04:00 p.m. (EST) the markets close and you’re done for the day. Leaves plenty of time to train thereafter. And you’ll be BUYING your own Gucci suits.

  7. Wow, I didn’t expect this much of a response. First, thank you for all the comments and words of encouragement!

    I wasn’t posting to solicit donations, but just to share a bit about what the challenges can be as a small sport athlete trying to qualify for the Olympics. Most of what I post is a bit more “bubble gum” so thought it’d be a nice change of pace and perhaps have some insight that be different. I also think I’m about to really turn the corner in regards to sponsorship and support (hopefully over next 6 months) so felt this would be a nice time to sort of capture the “low points” along the way.

    I have a longer term goal that I want to help other amateur athletes find ways to train for the Olympics without as much of a financial challenge. Hopefully, I can help create a road-map for sustaining a fencing career beyond college in away that doesn’t break the bank.

  8. Such an awesome awesome post. I really do hope you make it to the 2012 London Games and that you win gold. I also hope you get sponsorship. I wish you continued success.

  9. I knew that small sport Olympic athletes didn’t earn as much as those in areas such as gymnastics, swimming, and soccer but the 85% below $15,000 was a shock.

    Your hard work will pay off.

  10. What an inspiring and great story, Tim. I hope that you get the sponsorship you deserve and also get more people interested in fencing.

  11. Of course your mistake was getting the cavities filled in NYC. There were signs all over Pattaya offering fillings for a few hundred Baht. 😉

  12. Well, money is just something you have incase you don’t die tomorrow, right? Good luck with the sponsorships.

  13. Sounds a lot like where I’m at Tim. (- the Glam outside of my country + the unpaid health bill). I think no matter who your olympic committee is, they never understand that rent must be paid on a timely basis!!!!

  14. Hi Tim,
    Very inspirational blog post there – it’s amazing to see someone doing something for the love of it and trying no matter what. I am going a bit broke trying to follow my dream but while there’s still chance I vote give up and your post gave me extra inspiration. Massive GOOD LUCK from me here in London and hope to see you over here in 2012!!


  15. Congratulations on everything you’ve done and for having stood firm in your goals despite the Difficulties that generates … For an athlete to have a mental toughness is more important than physical strength, for me it is that makes the difference with the true champions …
    Kept faith and good luck!

  16. Consider putting ads here on your web page. If .25 of the readers at fencing.net came and clicked an ad once a week it would make quite a difference.

  17. My husband was on the national team for several years and has told me of similar stories. I love your approach of putting your goals out there (a leap of faith) in order to get those sponsorships. Truly to make an Olympic athlete you have to turn yourself into a mad training, corporation and self propelled marketing guru. You kind of have to be a one man show including personal agent. Keep up the faith, it will pay off as I posted to facebook.

    You are a great example of how to make this type of dream work. Your posts are entertaining, interesting, thought provoking and encouraging. You remind me of how to keep your eye on the ball even when you are tired and burned out.

    This isn’t to feed the zoolander monster, but to let you know the roll you play in many fencers worlds even if it is limited contact. I wish more of our top senior fencers would do this.

  18. Thank you Tim! As an artist in New York City I have been contemplating taking that leap of leaving my day job to pursue my dream full time and you’ve just given me more inspiration to do so. It can be scary but sounds to me, as long as your whole heart’s in it, you can’t lose. Thank you.

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