Jazmine Fenlator

Americans Jazmine Fenlator, front, and Emily Azevedo finish their bobsled run during a World Cup event in Park City, Utah, in December. Fenlator has turned to crowd-funding to help support her Olympic dreams. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images / December 6, 2013)

Her shoes are made special, with scores of tiny spikes to grip the ice, and they never seem to last long enough.

The steel runners for her sled cost more than $6,000 and the airlines charge $100 each way to carry her equipment to international races.

When American bobsled pilot Jazmine Fenlator sat down and calculated her expenses leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics — eight months of training and competition — the numbers added up quickly.

"I'm in debt," she said. "People don't realize."

Unlike athletes in most other countries, U.S. Olympians receive no direct government funding. Some — the Shaun Whites and Lindsey Vonns — can earn prize money and attract big endorsement deals.

Far more live hand-to-mouth, working side jobs to supplement the modest stipends they get from their national governing bodies. Fenlator — the eighth-ranked female slider in the world last season — estimates she will spend $80,000 in her quest to reach the Games.

"I still have regular-people bills too," she said. "Things like student loans and my cellphone."

So the 28-year-old has joined a growing number of American athletes trying something new to stay afloat.


The idea began with a guy named Bill Kerig who played hockey as a kid, knocking on doors in the neighborhood, selling chocolate bars to raise money for his team.

Kerig grew up to be a writer and documentary filmmaker. Working on a movie about U.S. ski jumpers, he turned to crowd-funding to raise $26,000 for production costs.

Crowd-funding has been around in one form or another since the 1700s but has gained popularity among startups and filmmakers since the advent of the Internet.

It works like this: An entrepreneur goes online with his project, hoping to attract financial support from a wide array of individuals who climb aboard as donors or, in some cases, shareholders.

"It dawned on me after I used crowd-funding for my film," Kerig recalls. "Where was the crowd-funding for athletes?"

In the fall of 2012, he launched RallyMe.com as a specific kind of crowd-funding site, and he forged relationships with the governing bodies that oversee winter sports ranging from skiing to skeleton.

Lindsey Van — one of the ski jumpers in his film — served as a test case. She set out to raise $13,000 and finished with more than $20,000, which allowed her to quit work and focus on training.

"I was thrilled that so many people supported me," Van said by email from a competition in Japan. "And lots of people I had never met."

Kerig had his proof of concept — plenty of donors out there willing to contribute to U.S. Olympians in the less-glamorous sports. Next, he had to persuade athletes to give it a try.


The notion of crowd-funding wasn't entirely new to Alyson Dudek. The short-track speedskater had heard of athletes raising money on all-purpose sites such as GoFundMe and indiegogo.