How is it that I can hold 6 National records, have 30 National titles and am about to represent Team USA for the second time this summer at the Olympic Games and still probably “earn” less than a DI collegiate athlete? Ok well there are a lot of factors at play but two of the largest factors are lack of sponsorship and lack of media exposure. The two go hand and hand and in my opinion are at the root of my financial struggles as an athlete.
For those of you who don’t know me I am a 20k race walker. I was introduced to the event in high school as the New York public high school system has it as an event in winter track for girls only. I am thankful beyond belief for this relatively early exposure. After having won four National titles in high school and having even competed twice at the USATF indoor open championships I went off to college to an NCAA DII school that happen to be in a conference that had race walk only at the conference level allowing me the opportunity to race walk and earn a degree simultaneously. I went on to graduate top of my class and qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2008. Despite an injury plagued year I finished way off the podium at the Trials. So it was off to graduate school to earn my Ph.D. while chasing my Olympic Dream. I lived off my graduate school stipend that over 5.5 years averaged 30k a year, oh yeah and I was living in Manhattan so trust me 30k doesn’t go far at all. Did I mention I was working 50-60 hours a week in the lab to earn my stipend? But nonetheless I persevered on. In 2012 I took a leave of absence in February to optimize my chances of making the Olympic Team. This absence afforded me time but left me with no stipend and no health insurance; a small prize to pay for the potential to achieve ones dreams right? Well it was really the only option I had. The road got harder, especially without insurance as I was suffering a severe injury April-may of the Olympic year but luckily I have strong community ties and my chiropractor and physical therapist saw me on the side. Together with a whole team of people helping and an entire community behind me I did it and on July 1st after 50 laps around the track I beat out my teammate by just over 3.5 seconds to earn my Olympic Berth. I was ecstatic and exhausted and beyond thankful to each and every person who came together to support me not only in training, and donations but in spirit and encouragement too.
I couldn’t have been anymore proud to represent Team USA, NY, Long Island, Sachem High School and all my family and friends. The community dug even deeper upon my return from Trials and we raised enough money to send my entire family, 5 members in all, to London. Now luckily my family is close and having two in a bed and a third person on the floor was of no concern and totally worth it to watch me live my dream. Post Trials shortly after arriving back home after to LI I received a phone call from the USOC. Wow I thought they are calling to congratulate me on making the Team this is so awesome. Except they weren’t, they were calling to inform me that I was in violation of a lot of rules. For starters I couldn’t have the Olympic Rings up at the background on my blog since I also had a button linked to PayPal for donations. I couldn’t out and out ask for money to help me pursue my Olympic Dream or send my family to the Olympic Games. I couldn’t have any photos of me from Trials up and also ask for money. Because I didn’t own the rights to those photos even if they were photos taken by my family members. I now had to sell the story please help send my family to London. Sounds like I’m asking people to send my family on a vacation not watch their daughter/sister compete at the highest level of international sport and live her dream. I was shocked and afraid as I did not want to do anything to jeopardize my ability to compete.
And so 4years later I had a much better idea of what was in store. What the restrictions would entail. What I could and couldn’t do. I once again designed team Michta-Coffey fan t-shirts this time no beautifully earned Olympic Rings displayed on the tee. We held fundraisers that said help Maria on her journey to Rio, no mention of what I was doing in Rio! I have yet to post a blog write up from the Trials race because once again which photos am I allowed to use if I still have my PayPal link up.
I knew after the race on the podium the nice sleek Nike jacket I was given to wear was not a reward for my race, it was a reward for Nike, just another advertising opportunity. In 2012 I had no official fancy athletic apparel sponsor. I proudly represented my club Walk USA, a club based on Long Island that has supported me, developed me, trained me, and helped fly me almost everywhere since I was 14 years old. I was sad not to have them shine on the podium but due to the strict logo size restrictions the small Walk USA logo was so tiny on the back of my jersey that it wouldn’t be seen on the podium anyway. This year however It was different. I still represent Walk USA but have recently also been signed by the amazing company Oiselle. I knew getting up on that podium wearing Nike would be a blow to Oiselle and ultimately diminish my ability to future market myself. After all how can one secure sponsorship when there is little to no media exposure and the little we get is censored with logo restrictions, size limitations and forced cover ups. It took my 4 hard years of seeking sponsorship and several attempts to Oiselle directly before being seen in the eyes of a company as a worthy investment. And now my big chance to give back, give the company the spot light, symbolically saying , “see a I told you so, see I do have something to offer you, see I can be a role model that little girls aspire to, see I am on the top and when people see me on the top they can see you too,” had been taken away.
Since this wasn’t my first Olympic Trials podium I knew what to expect and when I first stepped on the podium I jumped up and stuck my rear out. Why, well because Oiselle was written on my racing briefs, albeit in a rather small logo approved size but it was there nonetheless. When Oiselle learned that the podium moment was shadowed by a Nike jacket they were understandably disappointed. They looked into the actual rules and regulations and it turns out no where was I required to wear that jacket! Thankfully I would have another podium moment the next day at Hayward field. This time I was in Oiselle head to toe and we were ready. Surprisingly the staff at Hayward did not insist upon wearing of the jacket (in 2012 it we were repeatedly told we had to where it) and even said it was our choice. I was told in Salem, here is your jacket you will wear it on the podium. Glad to have this clarified the second time around and glad Oiselle got their moment with me!
Also to paint the whole picture in 2012 I lost my Dziadzi (polish for grandfather). Years prior I had given him one of my Team USA hats which he wore quite often as evident in its faded color. This hat was Nike apparel. When I spoke to Sally from Oiselle asking if after the podium for my victory lap if I could wear my Dziadzi’s hat to honor him as I had done in 2012 she said absolutely. Sally also asked if I wanted to wear it on top of the podium, despite it being Nike she could she the big picture from a personal standpoint of the athlete. This is the side of a company that deserves to be recognized and shared. This is exactly what Oiselle is like, they are NOT a company that sponsors a jersey; they support a community, build a sisterhood, and enable the dreams of athletes like myself.
Here we are only a week after my Trials race and once again it feels like athletes such as myself are being oppressed for not having an official USOC partner sponsor. Don’t get me wrong I am beyond grateful for the Olympic sponsors that make the Games possible. To the USOC sponsors that provide airfare and gear and fuel USOC programs thank you very much. But I would also like to remind everyone that the Games are also only possible because of the ATHLETES and you wouldn’t have world record, international elite caliber athletes without people AND money to support them and their dreams. It has taken almost 4 years to get an apparel sponsor and I currently do not receive financial compensation, product only. I have funded my dreams through my graduate school stipend, as an adjunct professor, tutoring and turning to my local community especially Walk USA for help. If we can’t thank our clubs, non USOC sponsors than how are we suppose to negotiate and sign contracts that provide financial sums capable of sustaining a living off of? In a few weeks I will also not be able to thank and acknowledge all the local businesses back home like Mastic Seafood, Egan and Golden Attorneys at Law, Inspire PT, Duke Chiropractic, and Irish Times that have supported me when no one else would. The inability to express my sincere gratitude not only diminishes my worth in terms of marketing but it stifles the pure joy that I want to share with others. Others who without, that moment, that of becoming an Olympian and fulfilling a dream would never have been possible.
So for now instead of taking the time to write up a blog about the rush and excitement of my Olympic Trials race, the joyous satisfaction afterwards of waiting for my TEAMmate Miranda to leap into my arms in pure celebration, or how the three days afterwards my family celebrated enjoying rare quality uninterrupted family time, I instead took the time to share with you the behind the scenes reality of one more thing an Olympic level athlete must endure and overcome. These IOC/USOC/USATF rules and regulations ultimately hurt the athletes and the ENTIRE community that supported them. They hold us back ensuring that the rich get richer and the rest of us are left to scrape by on what we have, exhaust every possible alternative source of revenue, and celebrate amongst ourselves while some of our biggest supporters are forced into the shadows, behind the scenes, and never to be mentioned.
These constraints will only get worse in the weeks leading up to and through the Games once Rule 40 goes into effect again. To read more about my 2012 experience with rule 40 checkout my previous post: http://www.mariamichta.com/wedemandchange/
To take a stand against this outrageous censorship share this article and post your own remarks! To help me thank Oiselle and all the other non USOC partners tweet and post your hearts out…just because the company cannot express their excitement, admiration, and congratulations of their own athletes doesn’t mean the general public can’t thank the sponsors and celebrate the athletes! For creative statements to post on social media about the absurdity of Rule 40 limits check out http://rule40.com
Remember for every “swoosh” you don’t see is an athlete probably like myself who found alternative sometimes innovative ways to make ends meet all for the chance to chase a dream. Yes sport can be pure, and that thrill of competition, the rush of achieving a dream, the smiling satisfaction of a hard fought victory not over others but over a weaker previous self that is why I do this and that is why I will not back down. I will continue to persevere on, thankful for all those who believe in me and are sharing in my journey. It takes a village!