After games, Olympians try to land work

Competition: A Web site devotes its resources to helping Olympians find success in the job market and build careers.

January 17, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - After the globe hopping. After the rush of competition. After the cheering has stopped. What happens to the men and women who make up the U.S. Olympic team?

"You put your life on hold to pursue a dream," says hockey player A.J. Mleczko, 29. "All of my peers have at least five years of post-college experience. I don't know if what I'm doing qualifies me for anything."

And that's from a woman with a gold medal from the 1998 Winter Games, the likelihood of another one next month and a degree in U.S. history from Harvard University.

Now, consider the athlete who barely missed making the 2000 U.S. Olympic team as a bicycle racer.

Jen Dial is substitute teaching in Annapolis while she tries to decide how to jump-start her career. It hasn't been easy.

"Once I get a job, I know I can deliver," says the 28-year-old who lives in Columbia. "It's getting that first interview and that first job."

The two women are not unusual among athletes at the high end of amateur competition, according to a survey last year by Monster.com, the on-line career management service, which found:

Seventy percent of the 400 respondents said the time spent training and competing has left them at a disadvantage in the job market.

More than 60 percent of retired Olympians and present team members have had or expect an emotional letdown after the games.

Sixty-one percent of Olympians in the 45-54 age bracket (considered prime earning years) say they have not fulfilled their career aspirations.

Thirty-three percent of Olympians nearing retirement age say they still haven't reached those aspirations.

And then there's this sobering statistic: Less than 1 percent of the medal winners are able to parlay their achievement into full-time employment.

Looking for a way to level the playing field, Monster.com and the U.S. Olympic Committee have established a Web site exclusively for Olympians and Olympic hopefuls that helps them gain a foothold in the business world.

Athletes log in to a private section in the site, using a password, to get resume advice or look over a list of several thousand potential employers that have been approved by the USOC.

They can choose a former Olympian to be a mentor by sport, geography, education or occupation. More than 125 former Olympians signed up as mentors, among them 1980 "Miracle on Ice" goalie Jim Craig, who works in advertising in Massachusetts, and speed skater Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals and is an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles.

Although in its infancy, the site has registered nearly 500 athletes looking for help.

Mleczko says being able to talk to another athlete who has spent time in the business world and get some counseling will be very helpful.

"I love to hear people say that with my background, I'm an attractive job candidate, but I have a deep-seeded fear that I am not," she says. "And even if I had all the choices in the world, what would I want to do?

"Another challenge is to find out what I have a passion for," she continues. "Those are the things a Monster.com mentor can help me with."

The program is run by Jimmy Pedro, a three-time Olympian and bronze medallist in judo at the 1996 Summer Games, who knows about post-games letdown.

"Most athletes don't end up on a cereal box," he says. "They don't have a bank account. They don't have a home. They need employment."

Pedro, 31, uses himself as an example. A freshman at Brown University in 1988, he quickly rose through the Ivy League ranks in judo. He sandwiched earning a degree in economics between training for the 1992 and 1996 games. The bronze medal and winning the 1999 World Championship convinced him that he could go for gold at the 2000 Olympics. Despite being heavily favored, he finished fifth.

"Right after, I was being pulled in lots of different directions. My speaking schedule was booked. I was exhausted and drained. When it all died down after three months, I was empty, I was lost and I had three kids and had to put food on the table," he says.

He landed a job with the Monster.com program.

Pedro says Olympic athletes have qualities developed during competition that make them desirable employees.

"These are people who work well under pressure, are goal-oriented, manage their time well, are used to a team environment and know persistence and how to hustle," he says. "Unfortunately, they rarely know anyone outside a small circle. Their network is their coach and their peers, who are going through the same thing."

But, out in the real world, association with the Olympics gets you just so far, athletes say.

Dial, who wants to be a writer, puts her fourth-place finish in the Olympic Trials on her resume. "It wasn't my best result, but it's the one thing you can use on a non-cycling person that makes an impression. You use the `Big O' when you can."

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