Mark Gangloff has a gold medal from the 2008 Olympics. He also has a car with no air conditioning. And he doesn't think he'd have one without the other.
Gangloff is one of dozens of Olympians and Olympic hopefuls who have the talent to compete for Team USA but not necessarily the money to train. Back in 2006, the Buffalo native swam fourth at nationals and found himself cut off from the USOC funding that goes to the top three finishers.
"I had just asked my wife to marry me," Gangloff says. "We had no idea what we were going to do. It was a scary time. My main thought was, 'Why did I buy such a nice wedding ring?'"
Gangloff gutted it out -- sweated it out, actually -- and won gold as part of the medley team in Beijing. But now he's back to pinching pennies, along with the majority of Olympians not named Michael Phelps. Although 2012 will be the year of winners and losers in London, 2011 is the year of decisions in the States.
"The thing about being an Olympic athlete is you look retirement in the face a lot of times," says Gangloff, who had a talented roommate at Auburn who quit competitive swimming in part because of financial constraints. "I've sat down many times and wondered, 'Is this the year I should be done?' The major decisions come every two years. Are we gonna make the Olympic push or not?"
There are plenty more like Gangloff. Just ask Matt McLean, who is graduating from the University of Virginia after winning a national title in the 500-yard freestyle. He doesn't have any real idea where he'll get the money to keep training.
"I would definitely say that I am in that group where it may seem like I can't necessarily afford to keep swimming," he says. "I don't have a ton of extra money. But I'm basically going to be doing whatever I have to do to make it happen because I want it to happen so badly."
Or Alex Mayer, who swam at Harvard and is one of the top Americans in open-water swimming.
"Training is a full time job and I can’t afford to find a job," he says. "If I had to, I might as well just stop swimming."
But perhaps the best example this year is Emily Brunemann. She's a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan, and she should be a bright hope for Team USA's Olympic future. She’s training for her qualifying meet for the 2012 Games in the 10-kilometer open-water marathon, which is only 11 weeks away. But for the better part of this year, she wondered if she should retire from the sport.
"I don't have a way to support myself," Brunemann says.
Part of the problem is actually a blessing: Team USA is getting older. While nearly all Olympians in prior generations were college students, able to train while in school, now the best athletes are in their mid-20s. In 2000, 42 percent of Team USA Olympic swimmers were post-grads. In 2008, that percentage rocketed to 92 percent. It is possible that in 2012, every male medalist on the team will be out of college. That has never happened before.
This means athletes have more time to reach their potential -- Mark Spitz had to retire at age 22 -- but it also means they have to finance their careers without even a part-time job. Swimmers like Brunemann do 8-11 workouts a week, usually totaling about 40 hours. There's no time for anything else, except rest. "You can't work," Brunemann says, "unless you're at the pool, coaching or doing administrative stuff there. That's pretty much all you can do."
The stakes are high. Team USA has only lost the medal count in swimming in one Olympics since 1956. And China is not only more populated, but completely government-funded. "I'm looking at the Chinese and they’re kicking our ass," says legendary distance coach Jon Urbanchek, who is training Brunemann and others in Southern California. "They're swimming like we used to swim 20 years ago. They're putting in the yardage day in and day out. The third world countries are still looking to put in the work. We're trying to find the easy way, the shortcut."
Obviously that shortcut could cost the medal stand, and no athlete wants to look back at her life wondering if that bronze could have been gold if she didn’t take a shift at Dunkin' Donuts. Brunemann is one of the lucky ones -- she has parents who are helping her fund trips to open water events in places like China, Hong Kong, Argentina and the Cayman Islands. "Swimming is expensive," she says. "There were quite a few other people who wanted to come out here to California, but they couldn't afford it."
The solution to this problem would seem to be private or corporate sponsorship, but this is rare in the swimming world, where even the best are not seen on television every fiscal year. In the evolution of Olympic athletes from amateurs to elite professionals, swimming has been a relative latecomer. Until the early 2000s, very little money was available through professional sponsorships and purses at international competitions were hardly sufficient to provide a living. As more post-grads continued swimming, more money became available, which in turn encouraged more post-grads to continue swimming. Even in the swimming sponsorship heyday, 2004 to 2008, before the economy plummeted and sponsors significantly downsized their payrolls, the number of athletes looking for money far exceeded the amount of cash available. And today an up-and-comer's chances for sponsorship are slim to none. "If you don't have world medals," says Brunemann, "it's really hard to get sponsors."
Urbanchek agrees: "If you don't have a medal, you don't have a shot."
The other, more appealing alternative would be support from USA Swimming and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). USA Swimming does its best to assist its athletes, but only has the resources to offer moderate stipends to about three dozen people. Even those who are on the national team, like Brunemann, do not automatically qualify for the $36,000 a year stipend. Instead, that money is distributed to swimmers based on a complicated algorithm of year-end top finishes and best times, and Brunemann missed the boat by two places at a single meet. Instead of getting $36,000, she got a grant for $7,500.
There is some good news: Organizations like the Level Field Fund, started by Olympic snowboarder Ross Powers (below) and supported by Phelps, has donated $112,000 to Olympic hopefuls, including Brunemann, who received $15,000. But that’s hardly a full-year salary for someone who needs to swim 45 miles a week just to keep up with the world's best. "My mom's a computer guru," Brunemann says. "She spends all kinds of time researching grants and is always sending me applications."
But what's the alternative? Years of regret? "I have a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this," says Brunemann. "My will and desire to achieve those goals keep me going."
Brunemann plans to swim through 2012, and then reassess at that time. "I want to go back to school," she says. "I want to get a clinical psychology degree, and that's another five years. I know that there’s life after swimming and I want to have a family." But the last thing she wants, the meantime, is to do things at anything less than full effort. "I think it hurts people," she says, "when they know what they want but they just can't go after it because there’s not enough money."
In just a few weeks, right in the middle of 2011, Emily Brunemann's 2012 will be decided. And if she comes up short? If she was German or Chinese, the decision would be easy: Try, try again.
But Brunemann is American, so the question is harder.
"I don’t know," she says. "It's something I'd have to sit down and really think about. I would hope I could keep going, if I want to."
As for Gangloff, he's still going: still with his wife, still driving that same car with no A/C, and still gunning for the next Games.