The names Cary Silverman, Todd Greene and Gabe Herrick may not come up much during the Vancouver Olympics, but they're players nonetheless.
All are little-guy sponsors of U.S. athletes who hung in with training help and endorsement deals when many corporate giants pulled back during the economic meltdown.
"Yeah, it was a huge hit," says short-track speedskater Katherine Reutter. "As soon as the economy began going downhill, a lot of individual deals went down with it."
Enter Silverman, an ophthalmologist in East Hanover, N.J. He did her Lasik for free, travel and hotel expenses paid. At Bioenergy Life Science Inc., a company in Minneapolis with only 30 employees, Herrick provides her boxloads of a favorite energy powder.
Reutter's hometown police department in Champaign, Ill., has been a loyal backer, and comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is an official sponsor of U.S. Speedskating, replacing a Dutch bank that went bankrupt and left the sport $300,000 short. The Colbert Nation raised that and then some.
As the Winter Games approached, Reutter says, some of the big boys came to call. "Verizon and PowerBar have just jumped on the train within the last couple of months," Reutter says. "Now everybody wants a piece of the action."
But for many athletes, it's the long-term personal sponsors who have supported them through the long haul. Making his third trip to the Olympics, cross-country skier Torin Koos grew up in Leavenworth, Wash., on the eastern slopes of the Cascade mountains in the heart of pear-growing country. For six years, the only logo he has displayed on racing caps is that of USA Pears, a brand of the fruit grown in his home state and neighboring Oregon.
"I grew up running through pear orchards in the spring and summer, rollerskiing and skiing beside them in the fall and winter," Koos said. "I made a couple dollars in the summer working at my friend Scott's family fruitstand. It is part of my roots, of where I grew up. It is also a company I can believe in wholeheartedly. Instead of promoting something like Mountain Dew or Mickey D's, I'm promoting healthy living and nutrition."
In Los Angeles, a cutesy head shaver that looks like a little yellow race car has made Greene a millionaire, but he's got a long way to go before HeadBlade Inc. is the next Gillette. With only eight employees, Greene's relationship with skeleton racer Zach Lund has boosted the product's profile but also done the athlete a world of good in the morale department.
Back in 2005, Lund was ranked No. 1 in the world, then tested positive ahead of the 2006 Games for finasteride, an ingredient in the hair growth product Propecia. At the time, finasteride was on the world anti-doping list as a possible mask for steroids.
Lund had previously disclosed his use of Propecia, which he had used for years and had not been on previous lists, but he didn't double-check the list that year and was suspended for a year, lost appeals and missed the Games in Italy. Finasteride was later de-listed. By then, Lund had decided to make his controversial thinning hair disappear by shaving.
"I was trying to hold on to my hair pretty hard back then," he says. "It was always a big insecurity of mine. I missed the Olympics because of it, which was pretty devastating, to miss out on my lifelong dream and have it be because of one of my biggest insecurities."
Greene, a head shaver himself who started his business out of his apartment, was a match made in endorsement heaven. Lund, who's not favored to win a medal in Vancouver, has been wearing the company's logo on his helmet in a sport that has him racing head first.
"What's so revolutionary for Zach is, all those years, he was trying to fight it and then he got the worst possible scenario," Greene said of his reasons for pursuing Lund. "He got kicked out of the Olympics and he said, screw it, I'm shaving."
Reutter and freestyle Olympic skier Shannon Bahrke say the Bionergy powder D-Ribose goes a long way to boost their endurance and perk up tired muscles. The substance, which they can put in food and drinks of their choice, is an ingredient the company sells for use in commercial supplements, but it's not sold alone.
As part of her deal, Reutter has been wearing the company's logo on her left thigh and lapel, also squeezing it onto hats and warmup suits in the lead-up to Vancouver. In addition to the powder, Bioenergy pays her a $2,500 monthly stipend. But Bioenergy is hardly a household name.
Herrick, Reutter says, isn't a corporate suit. "I'll text him if I need something. I can give him a call. He came to our Olympic trials. I've hung out with him. He's not just some business person."
He is and he isn't. Herrick is the sales manager for supplements and sports nutrition for Bioenergy, a company with a stake but not a huge one in seeing its sponsored athletes come home with medals.
"It's a more intimate relationship between company and athlete, rather than a corporation just showing them off to everybody," Herrick says.
Silverman's got plenty of patients already in northern New Jersey. There's not much to the arrangement he has with Reutter and several other Olympic contenders he's worked on, beyond mentioning them on his Web site and displaying their signed photographs with their thanks scrawled in pen.
"For the Olympic athletes, for the most part, they don't make a lot of money and Lasik costs. I love the Olympics. I love sports in general and this is something that can improve their performance so they can use every advantage they can get."
As for Lund, he's ready to show off his dome in Vancouver and says he's happy to have finally qualified. That seems enough for Greene, who added: "Hopefully he'll win by a hair."