Maya Lawrence has been fencing for 16 years. The 32-year-old Paris resident first took up the sport as a high school sophomore in Teaneck, N.J., continuing through her years at Princeton University and beyond.
She’s competed in World Cups and the Pan American Games, but she fell short of the Olympics in her first two tries. Now after taking gold in this year’s Pan Am Games in team and individual competitions, Lawrence is on her way to London for the 2012 Games. The trip is a reward for years of sacrifice on the part of Lawrence and her family, both of time and money.
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On the youth level, fencing equipment and practice time weren’t terribly expensive, but four to five trips per year to big competitions cost her thousands of dollars. “I’m from Teaneck, a middle-class town,” Lawrence says. “It did affect my parents. Once I decided I wanted to go to competitions, they really supported me.”
These days, the annual cost of Lawrence’s training (typically four hours a day, six days a week), equipment, camps and competitions runs about $20,000. The New York Athletic Club, a major supporter of top U.S. fencers, covers much of that, but the biggest financial cost for an adult Olympic hopeful like Lawrence is lost wages. Careers go on hold, sometimes for years.
Says Lawrence, who has a master's degree in education from Columbia in addition to her bachelor's from Princeton: “I’ve stayed away from full-time jobs, it’s just too difficult to train.”
Whether it’s fencing, weightlifting, archery, table tennis, or many of the other events that don’t get much network airtime, price tags can be high for those who begin training at a young age. Some Olympic aspirants in table tennis start playing at age 6, according to Teodore Gheorghe, chief operating officer of USA Table Tennis. Many take eight to 12 years to perfect their games, spending as much as $15,000 annually on coaches and sparring partners. A top-quality paddle runs $300 and up.
USA Weightlifter Kendrick Farris, now 26, started pumping iron at age 11 in his hometown of Shreveport, La. By 12, he was doing national competitions. After Farris tried and failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, he doubled down on his training to roughly four hours a day, while shelling out $1,000 a pop for four to five trips per year. “I quit my job, it was all school and training,” he says. After setting U.S. records at the 2010 Pan Am Games for the clean and jerk and total weight in the 85 kilogram weight class, Farris is making the trip to London. Families of child gymnasts seeking to develop a contender can cough up $1,000 a month in coaching and travel costs. Those who reach elite status require more. Then there’s the time required to chauffeur kids to and from training 300 days a year, several hours per day. The mother of London-bound McKayla Maroney, a 16-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., typically “spent her day on (Interstate) 405,” says Steve Penney, CEO of USA Gymnastics.
Want to make it to the Games without draining the family bank account? Try team handball. Or rowing. The national programs for both are traditionally populated by former high school and college jocks looking for a sport in which they can continue to compete. Olympic rower David Banks thought about trying to walk onto the track team at Stanford University in 2001, but opted for the crew team at a friend’s suggestion. He did well enough to earn All-Pac 10 honors by his senior season, which got him an invitation to the sport’s national training center in Princeton, N.J. Banks deferred for a year, choosing to stay on at Stanford for a master’s degree in construction management, but by the spring of 2006 he headed to Princeton. “I pretty much had to throw myself into it, usually six or seven days a week,” he says. Winter months meant indoor training on state-of-the art machines that simulate rowing. Costs for trips to competitions are covered, but the real expense is lost wages.
Banks, who will be competing in his second Olympics, found himself working part-time at the Princeton University purchasing office as he continued training. Not the usual job for a Stanford grad, but the price for Olympic glory. Most rowers in Princeton, he says, get part-time jobs, and many live rent-free with local families in exchange for odd jobs. “It mostly falls on you to support yourself,” he says.
Sometimes, an athlete pursuing an expensive sport can catch a break to save a few bucks. Archery typically costs the family of an aspiring Olympian up to $25,000 annually in coaching, equipment, trips, and practice range time. Success requires a rigorous work ethic of 250 shots a day, six days a week. “It’s about becoming as close to a machine as humanly possible,” says Teresa Iaconi, spokeswoman for USA Archery and a former coach. But Iaconi relates the story of Ariel Gibilaro, a 17-year-old from North Branford, Conn., who has been shooting competitively for four years. Gibilaro, who missed this year’s Olympic cut but who is considered a strong candidate for 2016, got her required 70 feet of shooting space on a neighbor’s farm. That allows her to bypass the $9 an hour range fee other pay, a rate that can add up to several thousand dollars a year.
Shades of a hurdling Babe Didrikson asking her neighbor to trim his front hedge a few inches so she could stay in sync with those on the rest of the block. Of course, for a modern archer, there’s still the matter of $2,000 worth of equipment, $40 to $100 an hour coaching fees, and travel to regional competitions at $3,000 or so a pop. Neighborly assistance or not, training for the Olympics costs a lot more these days.
Additional Reporting by Samantha Sharf