"An awful lot of them never make a good living their entire career."
Manny Huerta is one of the lucky ones.
For years, after leaving behind a full running scholarship at Florida Atlantic University, Huerta relied on family and friends to help him get by while he chased his triathlon dreams. In May, Huerta qualified for the London Olympics with a nail-biting ninth-place finish at the ITU World Triathlon race in San Diego.
“If it wouldn’t have been for friends and family and supporters, I would have been in a really bad situation,” Huerta said.
An Olympic medal is one of the hardest-earned prizes in the world. Athletes who make it to the Games do so after years of sacrifice, hoping that climbing onto the podium will make it all worth it.
Yet many Olympians never see that work turn into income. And many more, who are tantalizing close to the rings, struggle to simply make ends meet. In triathlon, where training volume can make it impossible to hold down another job, Olympic hopefuls often live with parents or sleep on friends’ couches.
“They probably are losing money on the sport at that stage,” said USA Triathlon Performance Director Andy Schmitz, of up-and-coming athletes. “Probably the only athletes in the black are those [eight athletes] on the national team.”
Huerta’s parents immigrated to Miami from Cuba when he was 13 years old and he dreamt of competing for his adopted country. To even have a shot at donning the red, white, and blue at the Olympics Huerta had to race draft-legal ITU events instead of the popular Ironman and half-Ironmans.
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) is the body that oversees Olympic racing. ITU races are shorter, faster, and draft-legal, meaning competitors can bike close together in packs. ITU races are also significantly harder to make a living at because of the heightened competition for smaller prizes, the expensive travel all over the world, and the lack of media and sponsors in the U.S.
“Once every four years, people actually watch and care and talk about it,” said Jarrod Shoemaker, a 2008 U.S. Olympian and president of the newly formed Professional Triathlon Association. “I think it’s a huge problem breaking into the draft-legal side of the sport.”