Tough economy tests Olympians

Shannon Bahrke roasts coffee. Michelle Roark blends perfume. Noelle Pikus-Pace sews hats. Torin Koos promotes pears. Megan Sweeney tends bar.

America's Winter Olympians work as hard off the snow and ice as on it. They have no choice. Tough economic times are battering them like a blizzard, so they have opened businesses or taken part-time jobs to pay the bills.

"We used to get a lot of money through our equipment and apparel companies, but now we're lucky to get a pair of skis," said Bahrke, a freestyle skier who won a silver medal in 2002. "I've been on the ski team for 12 years and this was the first season I had to invest my own money in the sport. It was either pay my own expenses or retire."

At least Bahrke has plenty of caffeine to keep her going. She started the Silver Bean Coffee company, which employs other skiers in Salt Lake City.

"It's not yet turning a profit but I've been able to pay for travel to World Cups, two training camps and massage therapy," she said. "People may define you by the medals you win but I've always wanted my own business. This is the other side of me."

The U.S. Olympic Committee was careful to protect funding for its elite athletes when it laid off 54 employees and cut its budget 5 percent last spring. The USOC will receive $255 million in TV revenue for the 2010 and 2012 Games, but national governing bodies, which depend heavily on sponsors, have struggled to maintain the stipends and bonuses athletes need to get through a season.

Pikus-Pace, a skeleton racer, is hoping Olympic passion will translate into more sales of her SnowFire hats. She designs the knit beanies lined with fleece and distinguished by the spiky "hair" growing out of them. She makes a red and blue USA model and summer hats. She's sold over 2,000, for $8 to $30 apiece.

"The economic crisis has trickled down from corporations to us," said Pikus-Pace, who is married and has a two-year-old daughter. "Running a business while training and traveling in Europe has created more stress but I've been able to make ends meet."

Pikus-Pace lost her Speedo sponsorship when the company decided to focus on summer sports. To save money, her husband, Janson, built her a sled last summer to replace a broken one. Buying a new sled costs up to $10,000, plus $5,000 for five sets of runners.

"He spent hundreds of hours reading the regulations, studying the design and using a computer program," she said. "My first run down in October, I said, 'OK, I hope this works.'"

Pikus-Pace estimates expenses for a U.S. skeleton athlete on the World Cup circuit to be $25,000-$30,000 a season if he or she is not on the World Cup team. Financial support from the national and international federations and the USOC adds up to about $15,000-$20,000. She's getting sponsorship help - and free diapers for Lacee - this season from Pampers.

Luger Megan Sweeney, who used to live in Irmo as a teenager, works as a waitress at the Downhill Grill in Lake Placid, N.Y., and as a bartender at the Cracker Barrel Pub in her home of Suffield, Conn.

"It's fast-paced work and I enjoy talking to people, hearing stories," she said. "Last season I didn't make the World Cup team and I had to pay for all my flights, hotels and food."

There are similar stories. Freestyle skier Jeret Peterson started a construction business and has learned how to hang dry wall and lay tile. Cross country skier Koos, who grew up working in pear orchards, gets aid from USA Pears.

Jennifer Rodriguez, a two-time medalist in long track speedskating, almost ended her comeback last year when she was nearly broke. She had invested her savings in a Miami bike shop, then sponsorships dried up. She put her car, bike and Olympic skinsuits up for bid.

"Our sport is very popular and very successful only once every four years," said Rodriguez, who got relief from donors to the America for Gold website and gets about $1,750 per month in federation and USOC stipends. "But we train every single day."

Women's hockey player Karen Thatcher has won two gold medals at the world championships. But for the Olympics, she has worked part-time at a gym and a pizza joint to pay the bills.

"A couple of times, I did see some of my clients from the gym at the pizza place," Thatcher, 25, joked. "I was like, 'That doesn't fit into your program!'"