Niyo: Rowers plug away with few pennies to spare

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rio de Janeiro — Grace Luczak’s first athletic triumph came as a 7-month-old when her mother entered her in a diaper-dash crawling competition near their home in suburban Detroit. She won her family a year’s supply of Pampers.

But as it is with so many other Olympic athletes, they’ve been repaying that debt since.

And here in Rio, where International Olympic Committee officials’ per diem of $900 — more champagne, sir? — surpasses the monthly sports federation stipend for many U.S. athletes, that disparity certainly isn’t lost on anyone.

Yet it’s also the price so many of these Olympians and their families are willing to pay. Particularly here at Lagoa Stadium, where the U.S. rowing team — including Luczak, an Ann Arbor Pioneer grad, and handful more with Michigan ties — had an unscheduled day off with competition postponed because of windy conditions.

“They’re all funded by their parents,” joked Jackson’s David Latz, whose daughter, also named Grace, is a first-time Olympian competing in the women’s quadruple sculls. “But we’re happy that we’ve been able to do that for Grace, just because it’s a dream for her and she had the ability and the perseverance to see it through. You support your children in their dreams in any manner that you can.”

That support is crucial in a sport that, by its very nature, is not going to “put somebody up on a pedestal,” said Curtis Jordan, U.S. Rowing’s director of high performance. There are no companies clamoring to offer endorsement deals for individual athletes in rowing. Not even for the dominant U.S. women’s eight team, which has won every Olympic or World Championship medal since 2006. There are nine women — including the current coxswain, Katelin Snyder, who grew up in the Detroit area — in that boat, and the crew changes year to year.

So even with the federation funding — monthly stipends can range from $1,200 to twice that, before taxes, for the top American rowers — and all the other services U.S. Rowing provides, from training facilities to team breakfasts to a full-time physical therapy staff and nutritionist, “it’s still a hard row,” Jordan agreed.

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And with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s direct athlete support (DAS) tied to performance — it’s up considerably from a $400,000 expenditure in 2014 for rowing, Jordan said — some athletes find themselves on the outside looking in, forced to relocate to train and forced to get creative to make ends meet.

“I’ve had months where I feel like I’m a training athlete and I’m rich, and I’ve had months where I don’t even have enough money to pay for food, let alone a place to live,” said Emily Regan, a former All-American at Michigan State who is part of the women’s eight. “But I, personally, am incredibly fortunate to come from a family that’s so, so supportive. They make sure that the financial side of it is not something that’s gonna prevent me from reaching my goal. As a 28-year-old woman, you hate to still be relying on your parents from time to time, and I hate having to ask.”

Just scraping by

But it’s inevitable, according to Ellen Tomek, a Michigan grad who certainly would know as a two-time Olympian celebrating her 10th anniversary of making the national team. There were some rough patches along the way, battling injuries and poor showings that left Tomek scraping the bottom of the boat financially, “years where we were getting $250 a month and health insurance and that was it.”

The rest would go on a credit card, and not always hers. Tomek’s father, Phil, who works at the GM engine plant in Flint, kept her on his healthcare plan for a time and paid for her car insurance, “and when the car breaks down, I send her the money to fix it.”

Latz’s road to Rio took a more roundabout path than some of her teammates. After helping Wisconsin win a Big Ten title in 2010, she failed to make the U.S. national under-23 team. But she and her college teammate, Vicki Opitz, kept after it, and eventually found a home with the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia.

She still wasn’t in an Olympic boat with the national team, though, so she wasn’t getting funding. But Latz was invited to train with the resident Olympic team in Princeton — one day a week, two days a week, and eventually for week or two at a time.

“I called it my ‘weekend special’ at the training center,” she said, “where I wasn’t really in but I wasn’t really out.”

But she was all-in emotionally, quitting the tech support job she’d taken in Philadelphia and using some of the money she’d saved — an athletic scholarship at Wisconsin had helped — to help cover the costs as she drove back and forth with her single boat strapped to the roof of her car. Finally, in 2013, Latz earned a full-time invitation to the training center.

“They’ve got to really want to be an Olympian, they’ve got to want to be up on that podium,” Jordan said. “And that’s the good and the bad side of it for us. Because we know these athletes, deep down, they’re fully invested.”

For Tomek, that means sharing an apartment with one of her teammates. Others take advantage of a guest family program U.S. Rowing has with the Princeton community. Luczak has spent the last couple years living with 78-year-old Marlene Lucchesi, whose husband died in 2014.

“I told her anytime she’s done and wants her house back, she can just put all my stuff out at the curb and I’ll get the signal,” Luczak said, laughing.

But truth is, they’re having a blast. Lucchesi helps stock the shelves to feed an elite athlete who loads up on 5,000 calories a day while training, and prints off articles about business news and personal finance for the 27-year-old Stanford grad. In return, she’s got a date for the opera and a friendly companion to help cook dinner and watch her favorite murder-mystery shows on PBS at night.

“But I end up having to go to bed before she does,” said Luczak, who is hard to miss driving around Princeton in the “Kermit Car” -- a lime-green 2011 Ford Fiesta that even has its own Twitter handle (@KermitCarUSA). “I get up a little earlier than Marlene. She’s a party animal.”

Still worth the time

Most Olympic athletes aren’t, of course. But the hidden benefit to their monastic lives is the bottom line. The training schedule makes it hard to fly home for a friend’s wedding, and leaves them too tired to go spend money on concerts or a night out.

Of course, the flipside is all the travel expenses their families incur attending regattas across the U.S. and in Europe. And now here in Rio, where the rowing venue is beautiful, a few blocks from Ipanema Beach with Sugarloaf Mountain and its Christ the Redeemer statue as the backdrop.

But it’s the sounds they hear, as much as the sights they see, that make it all worth it, said David Latz, who runs a dentistry practice in Jackson. Like most of us, he’s been to hundreds of sporting events where the national anthem is played.

“But I’ve never really experienced the excitement of hearing that until I got to an international sporting event where my daughter is responsible for them playing that anthem,” Latz said. “It just brought tears to my eyes.”

Hard to put a price tag on that.