Economy hinders athletes training for ‘10 Winter Olympics

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Casey Puckett is 37 years old and has two children, including a daughter with severe lung problems. His brother, a financial planner at the investment firm Edward Jones, offered to help find him a cushy job with the company.

But Puckett’s medium-length beard and sun-worn face suggest where his heart and ambition lie — out on the slopes, not behind a desk.

The four-time Olympian isn’t ready to give up his pursuit of gold as a member of the U.S. Ski Team despite a tough economy that has cut his prize and endorsement money and made it more difficult to balance the financial demands of raising a family and pursuing his dreams.

“At this point, a 9-5 office job wouldnt really fit,” Puckett said. “It’s a great honor when you’re named to an Olympic team. I don’t know, maybe I’m addicted to it. I love the lifestyle.”

Puckett isn’t alone. As the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver approach, athletes are finding that the stress of full-time training now comes with the added worry of depleted bank accounts in hard economic times.

Puckett left competitive skiing after the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City to coach. He now is trying his hand at ski cross, a fledgling sport that features skiers racing side by side on a serpentine track.

Puckett is one of the best in the world at the sport, but he’s hardly a wealthy man.

Most athletes receive stipends of just a few hundred dollars a month from the United States Olympic Committee. Puckett’s multiyear sponsorship agreements with Visa, Universal Sports and others will carry him through the Games that begin in Vancouver on Feb. 12, but those deals barely cover his training costs.

Puckett tried coaching on the side to earn more money, but those jobs are difficult to fit into a schedule that already includes competitions and high-level training.

And the economic downturn has taken away much-needed extra income that athletes once used to make ends meet.

Skiers, for example, had been able to earn prize money at pro tour events, but that source of additional cash disappeared as hurting companies dropped support for the tours.

That development produced yet another financial ripple: The decline in the number of tour events led to a drop in sponsorship cash for individual athletes.

“We had all these pro events, and now they’re nonexistent,” Puckett said. “They went away. That was another source of racing, training and income. To lose that was not only difficult because of losing the prize money and the experience, but some of my sponsors counted on that for TV exposure. So I got cut back by some of my sponsors.”

Athletes in sports ranging from speedskating to curling all have learned to do more with less and to find new ways to support their Olympic dreams.

Getting creative

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