Keeping Afloat

For many Olympic athletes, raising money is a second job

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David Bowman for TIME

Put on a happy face. Despite their financial woes, the U.S. synchronized swimmers must stay chipper in the pool

On the Friday night before the Super Bowl, in the host city of Indianapolis, the U.S. synchronized-swimming team is ready for a party. But they’re not going to let down their gelled-back hair in downtown Indy, where Playboy, GQ and ESPN are throwing celebrity-packed affairs. No, after an eight-hour training day to prepare for the London Olympics, these women are going to work. To raise money for their low-revenue and widely mocked sport, they’re performing in a swimming show to entertain Super Bowl revelers.

Well, at least they’ll rub elbows with Jon Hamm or Neil Patrick Harris or one of the other stars who have turned Indy into Vegas for a night, right? Not a chance: these athletes, who train in the city, will be performing on the outskirts of town at a hotel off Interstate 465. On signs throughout the Caribbean Cove Hotel and Water Park, hotel mascot CoCo the Monkey “asks that you please be courteous to the other guests … and not enter the lobby in your swim attire.”

As the hour approaches midnight, the eight swimmers apply makeup and fix their hair for their football-themed routine. Their yawns are louder than any party buzz. “Our brains are fried,” says Ali Williams, 22, a synchronized swimmer from Southern California. Though faulty speakers throw off their choreography, the Olympic hopefuls gamely perform their routine in a 4-ft.-deep pool in which a couple of little kids, up past bedtime, waded before the show. The party promoter expected 1,000 people to show up. About 70 look on instead. When asked what they’d be doing if they weren’t hustling for a $3,000 check at this dud of an event, swimmer Morgan Fuller replies, “We’d be in bed.”

With four months remaining until the Games, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and other well-heeled, well-sponsored athletes are training tirelessly. The synchronized-swimming team, however, is not part of that 1% of sport. It gets relatively little funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and must raise over 50% of its annual budget. In the postmeltdown environment, you couldn’t fathom a rougher challenge in the lead-up to London. “It’s horrible,” says Evan Morgenstein, an agent who represents athletes and is trying to secure sponsorships for synchronized swimming.

Bingo, bake sales, raffles and car washes used to be the funding strategies of high school bands and ski clubs, not world-class athletes. But for lesser Olympians, it’s a different world, one of taking whatever comes along that allows you to train. And be happy you’re an Olympian. The USOC receives the bulk of its revenue through television contracts and corporate sponsorships rather than from the government. “You can say that at a time when we have people out of work,” says Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC, “it is not a time to be investing in sports programs.” Plus, given the U.S. medal tally at recent Olympics, you can’t really claim that the current setup is broken. The U.S. won 110 medals in Beijing, tops in the world–including 36 golds, second to China’s 51. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the U.S. finished with 37 medals, the most for any country at any Winter Games. “We’re comfortable with where we are,” says Blackmun. “We would very much like to have more resources for the athletes. But it’s hard to argue that we need to change the system.”

So for the foreseeable future, small-time Olympic athletes will have to be creative. For example, runner Nick Symmonds, a four-time U.S. outdoor champ in the 800 m, is renting out his skin as a billboard. He promised on eBay to wear a temporary tattoo brandishing the name of the highest bidder as he competes for a spot on the U.S. team. A Wisconsin marketing firm, Hanson Dodge Creative, gave Symmonds $11,000; he’ll sport the company’s Twitter handle on his arm at meets.

Mark Hollis, the U.S.’s third-ranked pole vaulter, shot a Web advertisement for Corda-Roy’s, a company that sells beanbag furniture. Its beanbags are so cushy, he shows, that you can pole-vault onto them. His payment was one of them (retail value, $499), but this kind of work beats cleaning chicken coops and loading UPS cargo jets in the freezing cold–two jobs he had to take in the past two years. “Not ideal work for someone who uses his body for a living,” he says.

Ryan Dolan, a kayaker from Hawaii, persuaded a local canoe manufacturer to build him a $4,000 boat so he could raffle it off. He’s also mowed lawns. Race walker John Nunn, winner of the 50-km U.S. trial in January, just started a cookie business. “I get a couple of orders in, and it’s like, Great, there’s my gas money for a few weeks,” he says.

No athletes, however, have faced a more unusual path to the Olympics than the synchronized swimmers, which isn’t shocking given the oddball nature of the sport. Six members of the senior national team honed their skills at the Aquamaids Synchronized Swimming Club in Santa Clara, Calif. In exchange for resources like coaching, pool time and a travel budget for meets, for every trimester they trained at Aquamaids, the swimmers had to log 100 hours of labor at the 20,000-sq.-ft. bingo hall that generates more than 90% of the club’s $2.4 million annual revenue. And the women didn’t just sit still and call out “B-5.” They roamed the floor for five-hour shifts, selling bingo cards to the customers. “You can walk miles,” says Leah Pinette, an Aquamaid alum on the national team. “People have recorded it, like, I’ve walked 10 miles tonight.”

Bingo is intense, the swimmers say. “We’ll stand by the door and go”–Olivia Morgan takes a deep breath–“Are you ready, man?” The most important rule: Always keep exact change in your pocket. “People don’t move for hours,” says Morgan. “But they will get out of their chairs, God forbid, if you don’t have the correct change. They will hunt you down. It’s very scary.”

The swimmers often stayed at the bingo hall until 1 in the morning, then reported to the pool for 7 a.m. practice. “Yes, bingo wears out the athletes,” says Ken Azebu, chair of the club’s fundraising committee. “But it also funds the athletes. Which would you rather do, train in your backyard pool or have the resources we provide?” While the swimmers are grateful for bingo, it sometimes has left them disheartened as well as drained. “When you hear someone rationalizing that they are spending their rent money on bingo,” says Mary Killman, an Aquamaids alum, “you feel a little bad about taking their last 20.”

Then again, they’re financially stretched themselves. “When you actually run out of money for food, it’s kind of a concern,” says Williams, who adds that this has happened to her four times in the past year. “I felt like I had no choice but to ask people for money.”

She says her teammates don’t even get much support from U.S. Synchronized Swimming, the national governing body that runs the sport. At an early-January meeting, for example, she says, she explained to USA Synchro executive director Terry Harper that a $750-a-month stipend wasn’t sufficient to cover basic expenses. Williams says he replied, “That is not my problem.” A teammate, who requested anonymity, confirmed that he used those words. Harper says he does not recall using them. He does recall, however, explaining to the swimmers that direct funding of athletes is traditionally the responsibility of the USOC, not sport-governing bodies like USA Synchro. “That lack of compassion is weird,” says Williams.

To Williams, who is training all day and spending her free hours in the pool to raise funds, Harper’s compensation seems excessive. Over 12 months, her stipend amounts to about $122,000 less than Harper earned in 2010, according to USA Synchro’s tax return. “I have no idea what he does to earn that money,” she says. Harper notes that he gets paid less than most Olympic-sport executive directors.

Despite the discord, the swimmers managed to have some fun at the Indy party as they explained their craft to a few curious onlookers. “Most of all, we look to each other for support, to get through the daily grind,” says Williams. “In the end, we love this sport, and it’s all worth it.” Especially if the team qualifies for the London Games. Although the U.S. has won Olympic synchro gold, Russia and Spain are the medal favorites right now. But the U.S. team has a shot at finishing high enough at the April 18–22 Olympic qualifying tournament in London. “I’m starting to feel a little magic,” says Williams.

The promoter and the swimmers wished the Indy water-park bash had attracted a larger crowd; more eyeballs mean a better chance that someone donates. Since the party tanked so badly, the swimmers didn’t even get their appearance fee. Still, the swimmers are realistic. “It’s hard to compete with downtown,” says Fuller, knowing the masses flocked to the Super Bowl party scene. “And blame us too. Maybe we’re not that big a draw.” She and a few teammates chuckle. And with the hour nearing 2 a.m., they head for the exits to finally drive home. They’ll get to sleep in on Saturday. But there are no weekends off. Come 4 p.m., it’s back in the pool.