It feels like a no-brainer that Olympic athletes make a lot of money: Those Ralph Lauren uniforms, that dedication to their craft, the way people like Simone Biles, Shawn White, and Michael Phelps become household names with the brand deals to match. But for people who compete in sports that receive a little less attention than gymnastics, snowboarding, or swimming, pursuing Olympic gold can be a costly, lonely road.
A 2016 report by Fast Company found would-be Olympic athletes working while training full-time and pouring everything they earned back into training and competing—some living below the poverty line in order to do so, and others turning to crowdfunding in order to make up the difference between their Olympic dreams and financial reality.
Shaye Hatchette Mullican (who goes by her maiden name, Hatchette, as an athlete), is one of those athletes—high in passion, drive, and determination, but low in funds. The 25-year-old graduated from college in May 2018, and entered into the world of sprint kayak later that year after participating in the second season of NBC-produced TV competition “Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful” and winning the series’s sprint canoe/kayak competition. A lifelong athlete (at various stints in her college career, Hatchette was on cheerleading and soccer scholarships, and was a varsity rower at the University of Central Oklahoma), Hatchette told VICE that competing on Team USA has been a whole different ball game—especially when it comes to costs. “I never expected to become a Team USA athlete myself,” Hatchette said. “But after winning ‘The Next Olympic Hopeful,’ it quickly happened, and I quickly found out the reality of the circumstances for sports like canoe and kayak, which are not as popular in the U.S.”
Though Hatchette has not yet qualified for this year’s Tokyo Olympics, she earned a spot as a Team USA representative to race for potential Olympic quota spots in the K2 500m & K1 200m Olympic distances on March 20, 2021. On April 1, 2021, Hatchette created a GoFundMe page in order to fund travel expenses to get her to the qualifying competitions in Hungary and Russia. We talked to Hatchette about what it’s like to compete professionally—without making the kind of money the “professional athlete” label implies in the popular imagination.
VICE: How do you think the public's perception of what it "takes" to get to the Olympics differs from reality?
Hatchette: I watched a lot of summer Olympic sports [before I became a Team USA athlete], most of which were popular sports with a huge fan base. My naïve assumption as someone looking from the outside in was that every athlete in every sport competing for Team USA must get everything paid for. I assumed every athlete had access to personal trainers, physical therapists, recovery equipment, their food and housing is paid for, and they could choose whether to work extra or do their studies if they are in school.
[In reality,] everything leading up to going to the Olympics is completely self-funded. Once you make it to the Olympics your travel expenses are paid for, but you won’t make money off of it unless you medal or get sponsorships from outside the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. It’s a difficult road.
What do you mean when you say “difficult?”
Being unsponsored, unpaid, and underfunded in a sport takes a serious toll on Team USA athletes, coaches, and our equipment. I see potential in myself, my peers, and my competition within the United States and think, “Wow, with the right amount of support and coaching we could do more than just make it to the Olympics, we could medal.” Knowing that without funding, those dreams become harder to reach, many decide to leave the sport—and those that choose to stay must be comfortable with spending almost everything they earn to train at this level.
Still, the community you get in canoe/kayak is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in sports. Your teammates can become some of your best friends, and even when you’re competing against each other there’s only support for whoever comes out on top. Since canoe/kayak is so competitive internationally, you have to work for it as an individual athlete or it won’t happen.
So… how much does it cost to make an Olympic bid and compete on Team USA?
Since 2018, I have spent over $35,000 in travel fees. This includes flights, gas money, coaching, entry fees, boat rental, housing, food, and recovery costs while traveling. I have around $38,370 in expenses a year, including $10,000 for travel, $8,000 on food (including supplements and organic choices). I train in Gainesville, Georgia at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Venue with the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club. I pay $650 three times a year for club membership. My personal kayak boat, bought used, cost $2,000. A new sprint kayak boat would cost up to $4,000. A paddle costs $400 new and around $200 used. If I rent a boat for an international race, it costs $250-300 per event.
This summer, my training schedule comes out to roughly 30 hours a week, including on water sessions, weight-lifting sessions, and gym training, and I paddle an average of 70 to 80 kilometers per week (between 43 and 49 miles).
I can’t afford physical therapy or much recovery equipment. I’m blessed to have a father-in-law who is a chiropractor with some recovery equipment and knowledge to help keep me healthy, but I’m not able to afford the proper care I know my body would benefit from.
How does sponsorship work? That seems like it could make the process easier.
You can only get the opportunity for full sponsorships—financial support supplementing the costs of living expenses, training, and/or travel fees as needed—with Team USA if you produce gold medals. With no funding that's extremely hard to do. As you can see, this is an expensive sport, and without funding you are forced to work instead of train. That causes a big impact on your performance.
Canoe and kayak are under the same sport discipline within Team USA’s guidelines, so we do have a sprint canoeist who is sponsored: Nevin Harrison, the reigning world champion for canoe. Nevin will be going to the Tokyo Olympics, where she will compete for an Olympic medal. To my knowledge she has not lost an international race, so we have high hopes for Nevin bringing home Gold.
What has the response been like to your GoFundMe? How do you feel crowdfunding has helped you?
GoFundMe was the easiest platform available that allowed me the freedom to set it up, promote it, and share it as desired, and the response from my family and friends has been super positive. Without GoFundMe, I don’t think I would have been able to raise enough money to race at my first international race this year in Szeged, Hungary for World Cup 1.
What would your advice be to athletes calculating the costs of an Olympic bid?
Overshoot your budget, there will inevitably be unexpected expenses.
Do you think the U.S. is supportive of its Olympic athletes, and why do you think the level of support might vary between different sports?
I think the U.S. is supportive of the Olympic sports and athletes who are in popular demand. If you fall in the lower category of unpopularity, then the support starts to dissipate. (It’s important to note that this is because of less views and less coverage, so people stop watching and then attention is lost, which also means our funding drastically decreases.)
I wish the reality of financial stress on athletes in underfunded sports was talked about more. It’s great to see athletes fighting for equal pay, because there should be equal pay. It’s also important to keep in mind there is a large sum of athletes just trying to get paid at all.
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