How do you get to the Olympics? Practice, practice, practice -- and a darn good sponsor.
For some American athletes, sponsorships – and seven-figure salaries – flow in as the victories pile up. For most, however, it’s a full-time job, complete with cold calls and emails, much like someone trying to land employment.
CNBC spoke to three American Olympic athletes – superstar Alpine ski racer Ted Ligety, top-ranked biathlete Tim Burke and figure skating prospect Max Aaron – about their disparate paths to sponsorships and Sochi.
The alpine star: Talk to my agent For Ligety, a gold medalist in the 2006 Turin Olympics and winner of multiple world championships, sponsorships haven't been a problem.
"I get paid....I make seven figures every year."
Going into Sochi, he enjoys sponsorships from Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, and Citigroup, as well as from prominent makers of athletic equipment, including Head.
"I get paid," said Ligety of his sponsorship income. "I make seven figures every year."
It wasn't always that way.
For years, his parents were his only "sponsors," Ligety said. To illustrate that point during competitions, he displayed the words "Mom and Dad" across the front of his helmet—real estate that's usually reserved for a skier's top supporter.
After he bit into Olympic gold, Ligety no longer needed such attention-grabbing ploys, and he now retains an agent to take care of sponsorship details.
The biathlete: American in a European sportBut for Tim Burke, a top-ranked American athlete in the ski-and-shoot sport of biathlon, an agent is a luxury that's not in the budget.
Part of the reason is biathlon's relatively low profile in the U.S., he said, compounded by the fact that no American has ever medaled in an Olympic biathlon event.
"It's a hugely popular sport in Germany and Norway," Burke said. "But I'm an American in a predominantly European sport."
According to Max Cobb, CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Organization, a top U.S. biathlete like Burke may be able to earn between $50,000 and $60,000 a year through a combination of government stipends, sponsorships and prize money from World Cup events.
That livable but less-than-princely income has meant that throughout his career, Burke—who had a disappointing showing in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics—has approached potential patrons via hundreds of personal cold calls and emails.
Though he receives about an 80 percent response rate, he said, relatively few sponsorships have materialized.
"Through a cold call or a cold email, that's really tough," Burke said. "I've probably been turned down 100 times."
But his longest-standing sponsorship is the indirect result of a hip injury. After having hip surgery more than 10 years ago, Burke recalled, he called the maker of Synflex, a joint health supplement he was taking to aid his recovery.
"I sought them out because I was using their product and really liked it," he said, adding that the company liked his story as well. It has been a sponsor since 2002.
Despite the payoff, Burke has to balance self-marketing with training. In the run-up to Sochi, Burke said, he stopped hunting for sponsors this past summer.
"It definitely takes some time and energy, so I try and focus on that more in the off-season," he said of his sponsorship drives. "Around August, I said, OK, that's enough."
The figure skater: I'll take the bootsU.S. figure skating prospect Max Aaron, 21, is also no stranger to the balance between earning and training.
Within the past two years, he worked a six-week stint at a restaurant to pay his bills, while also training and attending college.
"I was a host, and a busboy, and a barback," Aaron said. "That was really hard."
That was just months before he won the 2013 U.S. national figure skating championships to become a leading contender for a place on the U.S. Olympic team.
Aaron now has two notable sponsorships, from the insurer Liberty Mutual and from Edea, an Italian maker of skate boots.
Though he would not discuss the specific financial consideration they provide, a spokesman for Liberty Mutual said that its total payment to him was under six figures