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Olympic Hopefuls Turn to New Ways of Fundraising for Support
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Olympic Hopefuls Turn to New Ways of Fundraising for Support
By Steve Ritchie - Special to the Register Guard
July 9, 2016

Andrea Geubelle
EUGENE, Ore. - Olympian Andrea Geubelle is going to Rio because she quit her job.

After months of trying, Geubelle's family and friends finally convinced her to quit her job as a substitute teacher in Tacoma so she could focus on her training for the triple jump.

"I was exhausted. I would (teach) all day, then go straight from there to practice, and I actually coached volleyball, as well. So my nights would end at 10 p.m. Everyone kept telling me (to focus on training) and I finally said, 'Fine, I give up.' "

In order to replace the income she was giving up from her teaching job, Geubelle set up a page on the fundraising website, athletebiz, and began raising funds from local businesses and events. The fundraising helped pay the bills, and the extra time - not to mention rest - worked like a charm.

"It made a huge difference," Geubelle said. "I hit the (Olympic) standard like three weeks later."

Geubelle's financial predicament is not unusual among elite track and field athletes in this country, especially those in the field events.

Andrea Geubelle

When Geubelle lined up on the triple jump runway Thursday evening for the introduction of the triple jump finalists, she was joined by 11 other athletes, only two of whom currently have a shoe company as a sponsor. Seven of the ten post-collegians in the field, including Geubelle, competed as "unattached."

Keturah Orji, one of the two collegians in the group of finalists, won the event. Christina Epps, sponsored by adidas, took second, and Geubelle was third. All three women have hit the qualifying mark and will be going to the Summer Olympics in Rio, the first time in 20 years that the U.S. has been able to send a full contingent of triple jumpers to the Games.

Geubelle said it is humbling to have to raise money to support herself, and help pay for training, coaching, medical treatment and travel. Leaving her successful collegiate career behind - she helped Kansas win a NCAA Outdoor Championship and was a 10-time All-American - was hard for emotional reasons. The financial challenges multiplied that feeling.

Discovering athletebiz.com was a game-changer for Geubelle.

The website is an attractively-designed way to "meet" an athlete, learn their back story, and offers a variety of ways a person can interact with and support that athlete. Those range from online practice sessions to personal appearances to a "shout out" on social media.

"Athletebiz has done a lot for athletes. They have been absolutely phenomenal for me, and put together an awesome website . . . I actually got to quit once I started raising money."

Melissa Gergel, the 2011 NCAA champion in pole vault while at Oregon, found herself in the same situation as Geubelle.

"It's been pretty tough the last four years," Gergel said. "In 2012 I finished grad school and wanted to keep training (for 2016). So I've had a bunch of part-time jobs while I have been training."

But Gergel knew that working multiple jobs was wearing her out and detracting from her training.

"If I wanted to make the Olympic team, I needed to not be working at 5 a.m. every day."

So she turned to GoFundMe, a social media website where people raise money for all kinds of projects, wants and needs, including training to make the U.S. Olympic team. If you search the GoFundMe site using the tagline "Road to Rio" you will find over 100 Olympic hopefuls, including many track and field athletes.

"To be honest it's kind of embarrassing to have to ask for help," Gergel said. "I put it off and put it off, then this year I decided I needed to quit one of my jobs. I was working two part-time jobs. I wanted to quit one of them and this was the only way I could do it."

While pole vault is a crowd-pleasing event at meets, sponsors are less interested in pole vaulters than they are in sprinters or distance runners.

"A lot of pole vaulters do things like (GoFundMe)," Gergel said. "Running events are pretty marketable because everybody runs. But for an event like pole vault that's pretty obscure, I don't know that it's as marketable for companies like Nike and Adidas.

Gergel was ranked 36th in the world last year, and she notes that, if you’re the 36th ranked distance runner in the world, you’re going to have a sponsorship deal. But that’s not the case for vaulters and Gergel does not have a sponsor.

She does have a GoFundMe site, though, with a helpful breakdown of how she will spend the $6,000 she hopes to raise:

Coaching: $1,800
Equipment (running shoes, spikes, chalk, tape, etc.): $350
Preventative Treatment & Therapy: $700 
Meet Travel (airfare, baggage fees, hotel, etc.): $2500
Nutrition: $650

To date, 55 people have contributed $4,400 toward her goal.

"I think that most of the people who have contributed are from my hometown or are family friends."

Another concern for Gergel and many elite athletes is health insurance.

"I'm 27 now so I got booted off (my parents' insurance) in May of last year. That was unfortunate, but I actually make so little money that Obamacare was a good deal for me . . . It's another stress I have to worry about - paying that bill every month.

"In the last couple of weeks some (health) things have popped up. I broke a pole for the first time and had to get everything checked out."

American record holder and Trials racewalk champion Maria Michta-Coffey has struggled for years to support herself while continuing to train.

Predictably, there are few sponsorship dollars for race walkers. Michta-Coffey recently signed a contract with women's apparel company Oiselle, but it provides free gear but no cash. Her major supporter has been Walk USA, a racewalk club she joined at the age of 14, which has helped her with transportation costs for years.

Michta-Coffey supported herself for five years through a teaching assistant position while she was in graduate school. Now with her Ph.D. in biology, she is an adjunct professor at a community college near her home in New York.

She has started online fundraising through athletebiz and set up a GoFundMe page for the first time this week to make it possible for her mom, little sister and husband to travel to Rio.

"I really want to get all three of those people to Rio to watch me, and we just don't have the money right now. We've done several fundraising events back home in our community, and I felt like I was always hitting up the same people."

Michta-Coffey is a Tier 4 athlete under one of the USATF's major programs to fund athletes. This provides her with a $2,000 annual grant and $500 bonus for medical costs. She also applied for and received a USATF developmental grant, which helped her travel to the World Indoor and Asian Racewalk Championships this spring.

Michta-Coffey said she is grateful for the support, and noted that she will also receive $10,000 for her first place finish in the Trials racewalk and an additional $10,000 for making the Olympic team.

"Our biggest payday of the year," Michta-Coffey says, but adds, "What if you are sick, or hurt or don't perform well on that day? They say you can't put a price on your dreams. When your dreams come true, I absolutely believe that. But if you don't make it, you go back home and find you are $10,000 in debt."

USATF CEO Max Siegel has touted the increase in athlete funding by the non-profit organization, but admits that it is just “scratching the surface.” Jill Geer, USATF chief public affairs officer, says "approximately 130" athletes are receiving support from the athlete tier program and developmental grants.

The funding issue and restrictions on sponsor logos are contentious issues, though, and will require time and good faith efforts by all parties to be resolved.

For the immediate future at least, hundreds of athletes are hoping to broaden their base of support - financial and otherwise - beyond the circle of family and friends.

As Geubelle says, " It makes everything more fun, more exciting to know that no matter what happens I'm going to have a big squad behind me.


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