Olympians' Parents Pay the Cost of Achieving Gold

Parents of Gabby Douglas, Ryan Lochte struggled with bills.

August 6, 2012, 1:55 PM

Aug. 6, 2012 -- While the athletes at this year's London Olympics have gotten all the glory, the breakout stars of these Summer Games have been the athlete's parents.

You may have seen U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman's parents reacting to her bar routine from the stands -- weaving and bobbing as they seemingly performed the routine with her. Michael Phelps' mom held her heart and put her head down when her son was in a tight race. The cameras have shown Olympic parents at their most tense and most involved.

Read More: 6 Great Olympic Parent Moments

While the parents, Raisman's in particular, seem surprised to have the cameras aimed at them, what is not surprising is just how invested the parents of the world's best athletes are in the competition.

They have, after all, devoted hours of their time and, more often than not, emptied their bank accounts to help their gifted children have the moment every athlete lives for, those two or three minutes when they stand high above everyone else, gold medal around their necks as their national anthem plays.

"The Olympics are not something you do to get rich. You do it so that you can represent your country performing in a sport you love," Shannon Miller, a member of the 1996 gold medal-winning US women's gymnastics team told ABCNews.com.

"None of them [Olympic sports] come cheap when you begin to add up the equipment, coaching, travel and other expenses for the amount of training needed," said Miller, now a 35-year-old mother of one who lives in Jacksonville, Fla. "As a parent, you have to decide which sacrifices you are going to make."

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Given the years of training it takes to reach Olympic-level status, just how much does it take for Olympians' parents to help their kids live their dreams?

For the mother of two time gold medal-winning U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas, the cost was bankruptcy. In court filings first reported by TMZ, it was revealed that Douglas' mother, Natalie Hawkins, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy earlier this year in Virginia, where she lived while Gabby, a 4-foot-11, 16-year-old nicknamed "Flying Squirrel," lived and trained in Iowa.

An analysis by Forbes magazine found that the average annual cost of raising an Olympic-level gymnast totaled $15,000. Multiply that by the five to eight years it takes to train a world-class athlete and the total can reach $120,000.

"I couldnt begin to guess the many thousands of dollars it cost," Miller said of her own training, which she began at age five at a recreational gym in her native Oklahoma. "Once you start adding up the cost of uniforms, grips, tape, prewrap, gas, etc it can add up quickly. That's not even counting the actual training cost. Many times I was also the only gymnast traveling from my gym in Oklahoma so we had to cover the costs of travel for my coaches as well."

The news of the financial struggles facing Gabby Douglas's mom came just one day after it was revealed that the divorced parents of Douglas's fellow U.S. Olympian and gold medalist, swimmer Ryan Lochte, were facing foreclosure in Florida and being sued by CitiMortgage for the $242,239 plus interest on their house they owed the bank, according to TMZ.com.

"My mom said it's her personal matter, and she did not want us kids helping out," Ryan Lochte told USA Today Sports. "We took it at that. She's a grown woman, and she's been doing good for herself now. She said, 'Ryan, you just worry about your swimming.' And I was like, 'All right.'"

While the Lochtes have not said how much they've spent on their son's swimming career, the parents of fellow Team USA swimmer and fellow gold medalist Missy Franklin, 17, will spend upward of $100,000 on swimming-related expenses for her this year alone, according to the New York Times.

Lochte, 28, has been swimming competitively since he was a kid so the cumulative total for his training could go beyond $1 million.

Easing that financial burden, however, is the fact that Lochte is an already heavily-endorsed athlete, a young, outgoing sex symbol in a high-profile sport. His lure will no doubt grow after his two gold, two silver, one bronze and a fourth-place finish in London and his announced plans to compete in even more races at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Likewise, Gabby Douglas stands out as a spunky teen and the first African American women ever to win the gymnastics all-around title. She inked her first deal to appear on Kellogg's Corn Flakes cereal boxes just hours after her individual win. Marketers say she could bring in up to $10 million in endorsements over the next few years.

"Gabby Douglas is perfect for family-oriented brands that are looking for someone that portrays all of those classic Middle America values," Robert Tuchman, a sports marketing analyst, told ABC News.

The Cost of Olympic Gold

But for every Douglas and Lochte, where Olympic success breeds money, there are also podiums full of athletes like Jordyn Wieber, the U.S. gymnast who this year failed to qualify for the individual all-around competition, even though she had been the defending World Champion and hands-down favorite.

Wieber regrouped to win the team gold medal with Douglas and the rest of their "Fab Five" teammates but it's unlikely she'll receive anywhere near the endorsement money Douglas does, even though her parents probably spent just as much to get their daughter to London.

There are also the athletes in the less high-profile sports whose parents spend thousands to help them achieve their goals, only to return to everyday life soon after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Fencer Maya Lawrence of New Jersey won a bronze medal in this year's Games with her Team USA teammates, but admits the cost of her Olympic ambition placed a strain on her family.

"It did affect my parents," she told Forbes of the thousands of dollars spent each year once she picked up the sport in high school. "Once I decided I wanted to go to competitions, they really supported me."

It's equally unlikely that you'll ever see the gold medal winner of the Olympic table tennis competition on the front of a Wheaties box, but their parents spend as much as $15,000 each year on coaches, custom-made equipment and competitions, according to Forbes. Training an archery star can cost $25,000 per year, but won't likely bring commercial endorsements.

These figures are in addition, of course, to the $12,000 to $14,000 a middle-class family can expect to pay to raise a child with no Olympic ambition each year, according to the USDA's annual report issued in June.

Miller, who went on to graduate from Boston College Law School, says she appreciates the way her own parents handled what can be a stressful situation, establishing her education as the priority and keeping the family's bank account out of the family's conversations.

"My parents didn't talk about how much money they specfically spent but I never took it for granted," she said. "They both worked full-time jobs and did everything they could to allow me to train, but they wanted me to be well-rounded so that, no matter what happened, I would be prepared for life after sport."

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