Thursday, November 27, 2014

Not Fair! Many of Canada’s elite athletes forced to juggle jobs and training

Canadian pentathlon athlete Kelly Fitzsimmmons is rarely caught standing still, as she juggles training and work seven days a week as she prepares for the Pan Am Games.
Torstar News Service
Over lunch on a brisk Thursday in downtown Toronto, pentathlon competitor Kelly Fitzsimmons describes her day.

In between bites of steak, the 29-year-old Calgarian says she started with two hours of swim practice at 8:30 a.m., then went right into client meetings for her consulting business. Next came her interview with Torstar News Service, a timeslot doubling as Fitzsimmons’ lunch break. After that, she’d be working on consulting projects until the early evening, then heading to back-to-back training sessions — first a track workout, then fencing training, which wouldn’t end until around 10 p.m.

Calling Fitzsimmons’ schedule jam-packed would be an understatement.

As one of Canada’s top athletes in the modern pentathlon, an event featuring fencing, shooting, swimming, riding and cross-country running, Fitzsimmons is a master scheduler. She balances her freelance consulting work with six to seven days a week of training across five different sports, while also running an online fundraising campaign with a target of $20,000.

Even though working takes Fitzsimmons away from her crucial training — she’s in the running to qualify for next year’s Pan Am Games in Toronto — the business-savvy elite athlete needs the money.

Between training, travel and competitions, Fitzsimmons can easily spend upwards of $30,000 a year. This past year, she competed in the North American Cup Fencing, New York Woman’s Grand Prix, Hungarian Open Pentathlon, Swiss Open Pentathlon, Masters FINA World Swimming Championships and finally, the Pentathlon World Championships in Warsaw, Poland.

Her federal and provincial government funding? Zero.

For many elite amateur athletes like Fitzsimmons, working full- or part-time jobs is a necessity, and often coupled with private fundraising efforts. These are athletes caught in a grey area — they’ve moved beyond university or junior athletics, but they’re not yet established professionals raking in cash from Olympic medal wins and endorsements. Especially for those without government funding, this period can be a stressful time, where sport sometimes takes a backseat to paying the bills.

It’s a feeling Andrew Yorke knows well. Now training in Guelph for the triathlon event at the Pan Am Games, the 25-year-old has been an elite athlete since 2007 and was an alternate for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Next year, he’ll be receiving around $24,000 in combined federal and provincial funding — the most he’s received to date.

But right after high school, with no funding in sight, Yorke knew he had to start working to afford both university and his training regimen. At 17, he started working 40 hours a week making cardboard boxes in a Brampton factory. The gig lasted around eight months. For five months of that, Yorke also worked in landscaping 15 to 20 hours a week topped with about 25 hours a week of training in the pool and on the track.

Once he started university at McMaster in Hamilton, Yorke still worked part-time at the campus call centre. “I raised a lot of money for the cross-country team,” he says with a laugh, before adding that he had zero social life while juggling school, work and training.

Athletes like Yorke can get funding from their home province, and at the federal level through the Athlete Assistance Program. The AAP, which has a $28 million budget, identifies and financially supports international caliber athletes already at, or having the potential to be, in the top 16 in the world. Last fiscal year, more than 1,800 athletes across 85 sport disciplines were awarded financial support from the program.

Yorke appreciates the funding that exists, but says it’s not enough to keep athletes above the poverty line. He tallies up his annual expenses: Thousands spent on flights and hotels for four to five races every year. Over two grand on a new bicycle every two to three years. $700 on new shoes, and $200 on swim equipment. Then, of course, gas and a car to get back and forth to practices and work.

“My expenses are just under $20,000 as a national team athlete,” he says.

Expenses vary depending on the sport, but the balancing act of training and working is an experience shared by numerous athletes.

Canadian National Trampoline team member Samantha Sendel, in the running for the Pan Am Games, says she juggles several jobs alongside her near-daily training schedule that costs around $4,000 a year. The 23-year-old helps her coach make trampolines — weaving the trampoline beds, attaching parts and working in a warehouse. She sometimes coaches herself, and also performs as a high diver and acrobat at Canada’s Wonderland in the summer.

Elite runner Kate Van Buskirk says she didn’t qualify for any funding after university and supported herself by working three part-time, minimum-wage jobs at Starbucks, the Running Room and a sports store at the University of Toronto. The 27-year-old also relied on her donor-based running club to help cover the cost of training camps.

“I’d work out, then go to practice, then go to a run, then go straight to one of those three jobs,” Van Buskirk recalls. “It wasn’t very conducive to recovery. I was doing training around my work schedule, instead of the other way around.”

Eventually, Van Buskirk qualified for both federal and provincial funding. But even with funding, and after placing in the top three at events like the Canadian Championships and Commonwealth Games, she still works part-time to make ends meet.

Right now, Van Buskirk lives in Toronto with her boyfriend, fellow elite runner and aspiring Olympian Peter Corrigan, who has also competed on the international stage. Corrigan knows the juggling act that comes from training alongside a day job after a tiring stint working eight-hour shifts in a Victoria hotel’s athletic centre.

“I’d either be getting up and running at four in the morning and running again after (work,) or running at 2 p.m. and doing my second run at 11 p.m.,” he recalls. “For recovery, it just wasn’t ideal.”

The 25-year-old sometimes looks at his friends, making hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-paying fields like engineering.

“Here I am, running around in a circle for peanuts,” he says.

Both runners acknowledge the benefits of government funding, but are quick to point out flaws in the system.

“We know the funding is available and we know what it takes to get there, but there’s very little that helps bridge that gap from university or being a junior,” says Van Buskirk.

Corrigan says athletes are often well-supported in high school or university, but there’s a period of time before they become true professionals where the money just isn’t there — and outside work is the only option to fill the gap.

“That’s where we lose a lot of really great talent,” he adds. “It’s tough. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve sat down and been like, ‘what am I doing living off a thousand dollars a month for the last five years?”

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