Olympic hopefuls pay it forward

When Amory Rowe Salem wants to do something, there's no stopping her. When she wanted the U.S. women's lacrosse team to win the 1997 world championship against Australia, she scored the winning goal in sudden-death overtime. When she decided she'd become a professional duathlete and win the U.S. Duathlon National Championship in 2004, she succeeded.

So, in 2006, when Salem, 36, noticed that elite athletes striving for Olympic teams needed funding and children in underprivileged communities needed mentors, she created In the Arena, a non-profit organization that addresses both of those problems by linking athletic mentors to kids in need and in return, offering those athletes a stipend.

"I thought it would be really great if we could take advantage of the fact that athletes have the attention of kids today, and try to connect the kids with the many athletes out there on an Olympic trajectory who are in need of financial resources," Salem said.

In the Arena's yearly stipend ranges from $6,000 and $20,000. The average grant is around $13,000. The amount an athlete receives depends on how many hours are put into a project, but there is no minimum requirement.

The money comes from grants, individual fundraising and a combination of family and corporate foundations. Salem runs In the Arena from her home office in Lyme, N.H., and estimates that the two-dozen athletes in the program have worked with more than 40,000 kids across the United States.

Brian Gregg, a 26-year-old cross-country skier who's worked with In the Arena for three years, spends at least 250 hours a year volunteering at the Lac Courte Oreilles Boys and Girls Club in Hayward, Wis. He tutors Native American children on the Ojibwe reservation for an hour and a half, then teaches them about healthy living through activities like running and canoeing. Gregg estimates he works with about 300 kids between the ages of 6 and 18.

"It's fantastic in the sense that In the Arena is the sponsor of the program, and I can go in and have a great connection with the kids, but also have the flexibility to train," Gregg said.

To attain funding from In the Arena, Gregg went through a demanding admissions process.

"I would say the application process for In the Arena was more rigorous and challenging than my application to college," he said.

Candidates must have college degrees, be strong contenders for an upcoming U.S. Olympic team and demonstrate quality character through an interview and three references. Applicants also typically participate in certain sports, like cross-country skiing, that Salem feels are often underfunded.

"If you don't participate in one of the big six sports -- football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis and golf -- it's a real struggle to make ends meet," Salem said.

Without In the Arena's funding, Gregg believes he would not have been able to pursue his Olympic dreams.

"Life was very simple and grim the year before I was racing with In the Arena," Gregg said. "I made and spent about $5,000. I was cutting costs on food and anywhere I could. It impacted my performance. I honestly don't know if I would be able to continue ski racing without ITA."

Distance runner Zoila Gomez, an In the Arena athlete since 2006, believes that without the program's funding, running would have become a hobby rather than her ticket to the Olympics.

"I have a place to live and food to eat. I get to train and inspire kids to be whatever they want to," Gomez said. "Life is so good."

Gomez, 31, was the first alternate for the U.S. Women's Olympic marathon team in 2008 and is currently training to become a full-fledged member of the 2012 team. She emigrated from Mexico in 1996 at the age of 16 and now tutors a dozen immigrants between the ages of 5 and 13 in the front office of the apartment complex where she lives in Alamosa, Colo.

"I know the mark I leave on the kids will be forever," Gomez said. "They will remember that I showed them they can do anything they want."

Gomez enlisted the help of friend, Phil Archuleta, 54, to help her tutor the kids.

"It means the world to them to have Zoila there," Archuleta said. "They see that she is successful and involved and has a real up-beat tempo. The kids see that and want to follow her around."

Gomez uses her In the Arena funding to cover basic living costs including food and housing, while a team sponsorship with a Mizuno-backed running development team, Team Strands, helps cover the cost of equipment and travel.

Gregg, who races for elite development ski team, CXC Team Vertical Limit, said he tries to put the money he gets from In the Arena directly back into his athletics, "going to different training camps, trying to do massage work once or twice a month, and being able to travel and get to different races."

When the athletes aren't tutoring or exercising with their kids, they're training hard. Gomez runs an average of 110 miles per week, with peak weeks reaching 140 miles. Gregg's large training weeks top out at 30 hours.

Salem is happy to see how her organization has helped athletes like Gomez and Gregg. In the future, she hopes to hire an additional staff member who can help solicit funding, manage the current athletes and their projects and expand the In the Arena roster. But for now, she's content knowing that through her efforts, In the Arena has already had an impact on 40,000 children.

"There's lots I love about my work," Salem said. "Probably the most uplifting thing is the call I get to make to the school, YMCA or Boys and Girls' club to say, 'Hey, we have an aspiring Olympic athlete who would like to come offer his or her time for free.' The person on the other line is often speechless."

To get involved as an athlete, beneficiary or sponsor with In the Arena, learn more at its website.

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