- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY In another life, skeleton star Jim Shea Jr. would have remained in a bobsled.

Actually, make that in another tax bracket.

"If you go into bobsled, it costs at least $40,000," said Shea, a member of the United States skeleton team who began his career in bobsled. "Skeleton costs $3,000. And if you travel to Europe to race, it costs $6,000 to ship a bobsled. You can take a skeleton [sled] in your luggage."

Shea's choice illustrates the pricey little secret behind most sports in the Winter: They cost a bundle. From high-tech skates to high-altitude training, from overseas travel to oversized coaching staffs, glory at the Games seldom comes cheap.

And we're not even talking about Salt Lake City's record-breaking $1.9 billion Olympic budget.

"Skating is very expensive," said U.S. figure skater Michael Weiss of Fairfax, who will compete in the men's short program tonight. "A coach, costumes, skates, traveling all those things start to add up."

Do they ever. Although figure skating looks relatively affordable some cash for a coach, a little for skates, a few bucks for a puffy shirt the truth is that it's quite costly. At least at the elite level.

Weiss estimates that he spends between $60,000 and $100,000 a year on his sport. Even something as minor as Pilates classes that help him maintain strength and flexibility run him about $3,000 annually.

"We have dance classes we have to pay for, regular workout classes, on-ice classes, costume designers, regular choreographers, a jumping coach," Weiss said. "Some people even take acting classes. You're paying a lot of different people."

When it comes to paying and paying some more Weiss has plenty of company.

Alpine skiers spend almost half of their season in Europe, hardly a low-budget proposition. In speedskating, a pair of high-tech skates can go for more than $1,500. Figure skater Michelle Kwan, a teammate of Weiss', performs in $20,000 skating dresses made by well-known designer Vera Wang.

Last season alone, U.S. skier Kristina Koznick incurred more than $200,000 in expenses. U.S. bobsledder Todd Hays estimates that he's spent roughly $600,000 over the course of his career.

U.S. ski jumper Brendan Doran said there's no way to tally the total costs of his sport.

"For us, it's a plane ticket to Finland for the summer, every summer," he said. "You spend the whole time traveling and spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of your parents' money to make it happen. Our parents work two jobs. They drive us to the airport at 4 in the morning. To put a number on it would never do it justice."

So how do Winter Olympians make ends meet? By and large, there are three ways: find a sponsor, get some national team funding or make it on your own.

Needless to say, the first two options are the best. As a 17-year-old high school graduate, U.S. aerialist Emily Cook landed a lucrative Visa sponsorship that allowed her to move to Park City, Utah, to train full time.

"Otherwise, I'm not sure I would have made it out here so quickly," said Cook, who qualified for the Olympics but will miss them because of a foot injury.

As a member of the U.S. Ski Team's "A" squad, Cook has her travel and training expenses covered by the team and the United States Olympic Committee. In early 2000, however, she was on the U.S. "C" team, which left her fending for herself.

"It's not cheap," she said. "You're on the road from November to March, on a plane or in a hotel. You don't go home and you're in a different place every week. Between food, lodging and plane tickets, it's very pricey."

Like Cook, Weiss enjoys plenty of sponsor support. Before the Nagano Games, he filmed commercials for UPS and McDonald's; at Salt Lake, he has made appearances for NuSkin and Coca-Cola.

He also gets income from the annual "Champions on Ice" tour, a 93-show summer event.

"Everybody cringes, but ever since Tonya [Harding] and Nancy [Kerrigan], figure skating has been pushed to the forefront," Weiss said. "Michelle Kwan makes $2 to $3 million a year. I live in a very nice house in McLean, drive a nice car, live a comfortable life. I'm lucky to be skating right now."

Others aren't as fortunate. Outside of figure skating, there generally isn't a whole lot of money to be made in winter sports, at least not in the United States. When Cook captured the U.S. Gold Cup on New Year's Eve, she pocketed a winner's check of just $10,000.

"And that's the biggest cash prize in the sport," she said.

Caught between exorbitant costs and limited income, winter athletes have to improvise.

•Koznick, who left the U.S. ski team after becoming involved with an assistant coach, covers costs by selling T-shirts on her Web site.

•Dan Campbell, an American biathlete, worked in a bagel shop and lived in the back of his truck for six months.

•Armenian bobsledders Dan Janjigian and Yorgo Alexandrou held a $100-a-plate feast at a church in San Jose, Calif.

•U.S. speedskater Derek Parra, a silver medalist in the 5,000 meters, works at Home Depot.

"In the U.S., there aren't too many skaters who are fully sponsored," Parra said. "I hear [Dutch skater] Gerard Van Velde drives a Ferrari. I drive a Honda Civic and I have to save to put gas in it."

Likewise, U.S. pairs skater Philip Dulebohn taught skating lessons and waited tables for six years, at one point working seven days a week. Partner Tiffany Scott also worked as a waitress.

"I worked [first] at a diner," she said. "I showed up for work one day, and it was out of business. They owed me money."

Then there's Hays. To pay for his first bobsled, the former national kick boxing champion entered the Vale Tudo, a Japanese freestyle fighting tournament (think the movie "Bloodsport").

Before a bloodthirsty crowd of 20,000, Hays nicknamed "Hollywood" by his promoter was matched against Japanese wrestling champion Koichiro Kimura. Hays put Kimura in a "guillotine" choke hold, winning the match and $10,000.

"That was nerve-racking, to say the least," Hays said.

Perhaps with that in mind, the USOC has promised to pay U.S. medal winners $10,000 for bronze, $15,000 for silver and $25,000 for gold at Salt Lake.

Given what most Winter Olympians have spent to get here, that's barely a tinkle in the pan.

"As a kid doing high school diving, it didn't cost me a thing," Cook said. "Except getting on a bus and occasionally having an away meet, where I had to sleep over. My dad loved that.

"He wishes I would have stayed with it because it was so cheap."

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