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,

Tim