Shoestring Olympics

May 10, 2009

In astandard-issue orange apron, Debbie McCormick works the paint department at TheHome Depot in Madison, Wis. She roams the concrete-floor aisles, armed withwhat has become an emotionally loaded question: Can I help you?

The contractortells Debbie he needs some primer, but not a lot because jobs are scarce. Hedoesn't know how he's going to make it. The homeowner lets Debbie know sheneeds a neutral paint to get her house ready for sale in this down market. Thebank is closing in. The office manager asks Debbie for the right caulk to covernail holes after a laid-off employee packed up the pictures that had beenhanging on the walls. The office feels lonely with so many people leaving.

"You thinkyou have it tough and you start hearing these stories," says McCormick."People come in and talk about what they need but also why they need it.People are close to tears. I think customers just really need someone tolisten."

There must be arequisite rescue gene in Olympians. McCormick is a curler—yes, an athlete whodirects a stone with a broom down an ice sheet, as if shooing a cat off aporch—and she's also a Home Depot expert on oil, latex and inspirationalcolors. She knows the healing powers of gold, silver and bronze, havingqualified for the 2010 Vancouver Games, her third Olympics, as the skip(captain) of the U.S. team. "If we do well," says the 35-year-oldMcCormick, "maybe it'll give people a little break from what they're goingthrough."

What about arespite for McCormick and other blue-collar Olympians? They are notrecession-proof either. As a rule, aspiring medal winners are practiced atsacrifice, a quality highlighted in the sepia-toned features NBC rolls outevery two years, but the economy has added yet another layer of footage. TheHome Depot has been up to its hex bolts in trouble. At the end of 2008,McCormick was one of 85 American athletes who participated in the company'sgenerous job program for Olympians, which paid them for 40 hours of work forevery 20 on the clock, allowing them the flexibility to train and travel. InJanuary, after The Home Depot posted a 31% drop in third-quarter earnings for2008, the corporation announced it would shutter the 16-year-old program onMarch 2.

McCormick, witheight years of experience at The Home Depot, became one of only a dozen U.S.athletes to remain at a store as a regular part-time employee. "I can't bemad at Home Depot," said bobsledder Brock Kreitzburg, 33, when notifiedabout the cuts. "If not for that job, I wouldn't have made the 2006Games."

SpeedskaterJessica Smith left The Home Depot grateful but facing a new asceticism. Withoutthe flextime, she couldn't squeeze a work schedule into her eight-hour trainingdays. "Every day it's a struggle," she says, "but this is thesacrifice we choose."

The 25-year-oldSmith doesn't bother her parents with tales of penny-pinching. She trains inSalt Lake City while her family lives just outside Detroit, ground zero for thecollapsing auto industry, where unemployment is around 23%. The ripples fromthe Big Three have reached her father, who delivers auto parts for carcompanies. "If it came down to it, my family would pitch in," saysSmith, "but I don't want to put any burden on them."

So Smith is likea lot of Olympians trying to get by on the three R's: roommates, ride sharingand ramen noodles. "The world may see the skinniest Olympics ever,"jokes Noelle Pikus-Pace of the skeleton team. "We're down to ricecakes." (Make that four R's.)

Two years agoPikus-Pace was flush with a bounty of speaking engagements, those handy $2,000to $5,000 gigs that help pay for equipment, like a $10,000 sled. (The U.S.Olympic Committee provides training stipends and health insurance but no livingwages.) Counting lost sponsorships and speaking fees, Pikus-Pace estimates sheis making $30,000 a year less than she was in 2007—or half her income.Necessity can be a creative juice, though. Pikus-Pace was granted a businesslicense last month to start snowfirehats.com. She makes and sells funkyheadwear for ski slope junkies. Think of the 2010 Winter Games as ado-it-yourself Olympics.

In light oftoday's austere times, U.S. athletes in Turin three years ago seem a grouppicture of entitlement, with hot dog skier Bode Miller front and center. Butmore than ever for Olympians, attitude is out, humility is in. Sacrifice isn'ta voiceover cliché for feature footage; it's an economic reality. "It's theextra stress you take with you to a starting line," says Pikus-Pace, 26."Everything has to be perfect—your equipment, your mentality—when you facethe world's best. You don't want to be thinking about making that housepayment."

The U.S. athleteis the every-American except for one distinction: There's no discount on theexpectations facing Olympians. They're supposed to win—even now. They'resupposed to inspire—no matter their budget. "It's what we do," saysSmith. "I'd love to lift people." She pauses and laughs. "Nopressure, right?"

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Speedskater Jessica Smith left The Home Depot gratefulbut facing a new asceticism. "Every day is a struggle," she says,"but this is a sacrifice we chose."

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KAGAN MCLEOD

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)