Athletes' struggles part of the dream

The directions from Fargo, North Dakota, to the Olympics in Vancouver could not be simpler. Just take Interstate 94 west for 600 miles until it merges with I-90, and follow that another 825 miles to Seattle, where you connect to I-5. Drive north for 115 miles to the Canadian border, where I-5 becomes Provincial Route 99. Stay on that for about a half hour and -- boom! -- you're in Vancouver. That's it. If a man is driving, you don't have to worry about him refusing to stop and ask for directions -- he couldn't get lost in the first place. You only need to make one single turn the entire 1,570-mile route, which MapQuest estimates should take just about 24 hours.

That, however, is not the best route to Vancouver. No, the best route was the one taken by pairs figure skater and Fargo-Moorhead native Mark Ladwig.

True, Ladwig's route from Fargo took a little longer than MapQuest's -- an entire decade (partly because he drove a Zamboni machine part of the way). It also included some uncomfortable lodging (he briefly lived out of his car), was way more expensive (especially when you calculate the credit card interest) and often challenging (his wife has given birth and lost two jobs in the past 13 months). But it was worth it. His route was more scenic (he performed with the Rockettes), way more interesting and exponentially more educational. And best of all, when he finally reaches Vancouver next week, he'll arrive as an Olympian.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," said Ladwig, 29. "If you set a goal and are persistent, you can fulfill it. You'll hit road blocks, but if you give up, you'll never know how close you could have come."

Ladwig's road to Vancouver is both amazing and yet not at all unusual.

Like Ladwig, most athletes reach the Olympics through equal parts determination, work and financial sacrifice. We may not be able to identify with a snowboarder who jets around the world filming American Express commercials, but we can identify with these athletes who struggle to pay off their Visa cards each month. Putting aside careers to pursue their Olympic dreams; they've lost jobs, scrambled for funding, maxed out credit cards, drained bank accounts, worried about health care and wondered how they would make their mortgage payment.

These are the Olympians for whom it's easy to root. Yes, they can land triple toe-double axel combinations or slide down mountains at 80 miles per hour and live to tell about it. But often the real Olympic skill is just paying the bills.

There are two things to bear in mind as you watch the Winter Olympics and dream about your child one day receiving a medal on the podium. Most winter sports don't pay very well, if at all. And they also are very expensive.

For instance, to compete in bobsled, you need, well, a bobsled. And bobsleds are not cheap. A top-of-the-line Bo-Dyn sled can cost $50,000 -- or about $5,000 more than an Infiniti M35 sedan; so unless you're Bill Gates' child, you'll be renting a sled at each track until you can qualify to ride Bo-Dyn sleds provided by the U.S. team. Bree Schaaf says that before getting access to a Bo-Dyn, she rented sleds for $500 to $900 a week. Also, most of the races are in Europe, which means you spend long chunks of the winter overseas, where every time the dollar falls against the euro, the cost of a Royale with Cheese at St. Moritz rises that much more.

Oh, and if you want to actually win a race, you'll want to provide the sled's steel runners, which can cost $5,000. "In my short career as a bobsled driver, I've already invested over $15,000 of my own money in runners," said Schaaf, 29, who converted to the sport from skeleton three years ago. "But when it comes to an Olympic dream, no cost is too high -- that's what credit cards are for."

Ladwig can certainly testify to that. He juggles so many credit cards -- he currently has at least 10 -- that he jokes, "Bank of America sponsored me."

In addition to the expense of other sports, in figure skating you also have to pay for your costumes (which can cost from $700 to thousands), your ice time (about $800 a month for Ladwig) and your coach and choreographer. The cost of a coach varies wildly, but Ladwig says he and pairs partner Amanda Evora pay their coaches about $20,000 a year, which is a bargain compared to some. Not only that, they must also pay their coach's transportation costs to competitions, as well as their own.

Please, please don't open the hotel mini-bar.

Ladwig grew up in Fargo-Moorhead on the North Dakota/Minnesota border, where most kids wear skates to play hockey. Like many of us, he ran into serious debt when he was young and banks filled his mailbox with enticing credit card offers. He was able to clear his debt by working in the 2001 Radio City Music Hall Christmas -- he skated amid the kicking Rockettes on a Kevlar sheet that was akin to "roller-blading through molasses" -- then started working the cards again when he drove across country and lived out of his car in search of a new pairs partner. He volunteered at the Salt Lake City Olympics (he gave Kristi Yamaguchi directions one day) and then met up with Evora. The two have been together ever since, slowly but surely working their way up the national rankings. They made the 2010 Olympic team after finishing second at the U.S. championships in Spokane, Wash.

It hasn't been easy. To cover expenses, Ladwig worked an assortment of jobs, from busboy and waiter to Zamboni driver at his rink in Ellenton, Fla. "I was always keeping my options open for a source of income," he said.

He virtually lives at the arena, training in the morning and working in the afternoons and evenings. Fortunately, he's an Eagle Scout, so he is prepared for most anything. He handles the public skate program, playing the music, working the lights and attending to bumps and bruises. He teaches. Sometimes he sharpens skates. He still drives the Zamboni machine on occasion. In the nights before leaving for one competition in Germany, he could be found in the middle of the night cutting safety mats to place along the rink.

This is not exactly how Michelle Kwan got started.<./p>

Katherine Reutter, 21, began as a figure skater 16 years ago when her mother took her to the local rink. "But I never wanted to do any tricks or smile -- I always wanted to race," she said. "It wasn't long until I switched to speedskating."

Eventually, Reutter's family was waking up early every Saturday morning to drive her three hours from their home in Champaign, Ill., for more ice time in St. Louis. Then they would drive the three hours back to Champaign that same night, get some sleep and repeat the journey the very next day. Staying overnight in St. Louis would have been more convenient, but it also would have been too expensive for the family.

When Reutter was 16, she moved to Marquette, Mich., where she lived in a college dorm while training at the U.S. Olympic Education Center. She says she received a $650 monthly stipend that was supposed to cover her housing, meals, travel and equipment (boots and blades can cost nearly $2,000).

"There is no way that is possible," she said. "When I first started, I was completely dependent on my parents and grandparents and any friends or friends of family willing to help me."

The U.S. national champion, Reutter trains in Salt Lake now and says she is doing all right financially thanks to a larger stipend from the U.S. speedskating program, as well as some small sponsorship deals that bring in an additional $1,600 a month. (U.S. speedskating also covers her travel.) Reutter is among the three fastest in the world, which puts her financially way ahead of skaters who are just a little slower.

"Funding is so hard to come by," she said. "There are so many people who dedicate their lives to this and a lot of them haven't qualified for the national team, so they come out here with no funding at all. Including training and recovery time, you're here nine to 10 hours a day, so you can't have a job. Well, you can have a job, but you can't be good at skating -- you can't be good at both things."

For a while, some athletes were able to rely on Home Depot's Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which provided good jobs with flexible schedules that allowed sufficient time off for training and competing.

"Home Depot was a fantastic program that provided Olympic athletes the opportunity to work with flexible hours and locations, paying us full-time pay for part-time work," Schaaf explained in an e-mail. "It allowed me to train and compete without the stress of fitting in multiple workouts around a 9-to-5 work schedule. More importantly, it eliminated the stress of accumulating credit card debt to pay for bobsled equipment, travel, and just the cost of living year round.

"When I qualified for the Depot Program, my training quality shot through the roof and I made huge strides in strength and speed due to better recovery. I didn't have to get up at 5:30 a.m. anymore to fit my first workout in before work, and didn't have to lift after eight hours on the job."

Schaaf improved so much, she wound up winning the U.S. championship last winter. The thrill of victory was followed by the agony of defeat -- three days after her victory, Home Depot cut the program due to the housing crisis (the company laid off 6,000 full-time employees, as well). "It's like getting socked in the gut with a trophy," she told National Public Radio at the time.

She was able to get by last year with a sponsorship from Comcast, which was less awkward than relying extensively on local fundraisers -- her hometown of Bremerton, Wash., raised $6,000 for her a couple of years ago. Schaaf says thanking everyone who has helped along the way would surpass even the longest acceptance speech in Academy Awards history.

"I imagine it's not unlike being a homeless person on the street begging for money," she said. "A lot of the time, they don't have the means to carry a normal job. Due to our training and travel schedule, we really can't work a normal job, and count largely on the kindness of others to help support us. And then when someone is kind enough to make a large donation, instead of spending it on food and necessities, we spend it on our addiction -- bobsled."

Ladwig and his wife, Janet, are not homeless. They purchased a house two years ago, signing on to a 40-year mortgage at a high interest rate. Nice timing. The housing bubble was just beginning to burst. Janet was employed as an interior designer -- it was her major in college -- but she lost that job last December during the housing crisis. Shortly afterward, she learned she was pregnant with their first child (Holden). She took a job with Target in the human resources department before being laid off there, as well. Now she works nights as a bartender.

"Mark and I see each other in passing when we're dropping the baby off," Janet said. "'How did you do today? Did you land your jumps?' When I get home, he's just about to go to bed or already asleep."

Ladwig receives a stipend from U.S. figure skating that he says is enough to just about cover his mortgage payment every other month. The problem with that is banks have this stubborn habit of insisting on mortgage payments every month. During one three-month stretch last year, the Ladwigs were forced to rely on the Borrowers Protection Plan to cover the mortgage. They're able to pay it again now.

"You definitely have to budget right," Janet said. "If not, it's really easy to buy that extra pair of shoes or something you see in the store and then get home and go, 'Oh, crap, I have to pay that bill' or 'I have to buy groceries.'"

Ladwig says he and his wife don't live month to month but "two months to two months ... I'm good through March. Then it depends on what happens."

These Olympians aren't complaining. They chose to pursue their dreams and knew what they were getting into. They also know their financial challenges aren't special. "The economy is tough all around," Ladwig said. "The pizza place down the block has shut down three times."

Asked what she has given up to become an Olympian, Schaaf replied: "Short answer: Carbs. Long answer: I don't really consider anything a sacrifice when it comes to realizing a dream. It's all been necessary, the good and the bad, and I've learned critical lessons from all of it. Yes, there's the obvious, like being away from loved ones for half the year while we travel and compete ... the massive bruises that come with bobsled crashes, spending hours in the morning putting together meals so that I can eat what I need, on the dot every three hours, the cost of supplements and eating all organic, the fact that all my money goes toward bobsled equipment, blah, blah, blah ...

"But to be honest, I never even notice that stuff until I'm asked, as it's all a part of the process and all critical components of competing against the best in the world in a sport I'm really passionate about."

Schaaf's hometown of Bremerton is less than 150 miles from Vancouver as the crow flies. She doesn't regret the circuitous route she took to get to Vancouver, though. That's what all the athletes say. The experience has been well worth all the financial sacrifices, all the hardship. And why not? They're young, they're fit, they've traveled the world and they're going to the Olympics.

"If I'm upset and I'm homesick, I'll wish I was there with my friends and wish I could go to dinner and a movie afterwards," Reutter said. "My family and friends are what I miss most, but I also know I would get tired of that lifestyle very quickly. Right now, I'm not only competing as an athlete, but as an American. I get to go to the Olympics. I get to bring the whole world together. Once every four years, the whole world comes together and I'm one of the people doing that."

"If I had not made it to the Olympics, my story would be just as great, I'd still be the same a guy," Ladwig said. "My Eagle Scout mentality would still be there. The Olympic ideals validate that I've worked hard to be a skater. When we made the team, I wasn't satisfied in my performance. I can be better. We're going to be better."

Ladwig received a volunteer's medal for helping at the 2002 Olympics, and he not only kept it, he brought it with him to the U.S. championships, pulling it out each day for inspiration. When he received the news he had made the team, he held the medal up at the news conference and read its slogan to the media: "Light the fire within."

Which is kind of the whole point of sports. If the point to life is to live as fully as possible, these Olympians are already rich beyond their dreams. Although they may not necessarily feel that way right when they open the credit card bill.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.