It all started with a sign on the side of the highway. Now, Canadian skeleton athlete, Madi Charney is a top prospect from the upcoming Winter Olympics. But, due to a cut in government funding, Charney — like many other athletes — is struggling to support herself while training.
"The rest was history"
Growing up in Brooks, Alta. Charney was an active youngster involved in many of the local sports programs. A career change for her parents saw Charney move to Calgary where she says her routine was shaken up.
“When we moved to the city I wasn’t able to compete in everything that I wanted to, and it was definitely just where I was able to do one or two things at once.”
“Madi, she has big eyes, and they were huge, and she was just vibrating — she loved it so much.” -Judy Charney
Charney’s mother, Judy, always knew her daughter was interested in all things new and exciting. So, when she saw a sign on the side of the road by Canada Olympic Park asking parents if they would like to see their kids in the Olympics, Judy thought, “Hell yes! I want my kid to go to the Olympics.”
Judy recalls Charney’s [Madi] first time ever trying a full run saying, “You know, I hadn’t really thought much about it but when the day came for her to go from the top of the track, I was like oh my gosh what have I done? Oh, my god, what have I done.” But when Charney had finally reached the bottom where Judy was standing to watch she says, “You know, Madi she has big eyes, and they were huge, and she was just vibrating — she loved it so much.”
A few days later Charney was enrolled in a skeleton testing camp and “the rest was history,” she explains.
Charney, started skeleton before even having received her driver's license remembering, “I was fifteen, I couldn’t drive, it was the worst.”
Thankfully Charney’s parents have always been willing to get behind the wheel for her and support her in other ways.
“If I needed someone to go with me or needed a ride, my mom [would lend a hand] for the first like year and a half because I couldn’t drive, and training wasn’t over until 10:30 pm and she had to get up at 5:30 am the next morning, so it was definitely long nights for her.”
After just three years in the sport Charney made the national development team. To make the team, Charney had to qualify in the Canadian Selections trials against numerous other athletes. The National Development Team consists of two racing tours throughout North America and Europe. It allows athletes to become more familiar with the sport and the different tracks located around the globe.
In her grade 12 year she made the team again and completed a full circuit, which consists of eight different races. During those races, she ranked third out of all the other athletes, which Charney says included, “people from the states and people from other places throughout the world.”
Journey to the Olympics
Charney currently has her sights set on the 2018 Winter Olympics. In order to reach that goal, she must continue her rigorous training schedule and remain in the peak condition she is currently in.
However, another big hurdle that top level athletes are currently facing in Canada’s skeleton program are the significant cuts in funding after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Athletes on the national development team program are given their carting salaries to help with expenses — but it isn’t enough.
“You get paid per month by the government — it’s a living salary though it’s literally just the bare-minimum to get you through, and there’s kind of two levels to that, and I was able to get carting for the past couple of years which has helped a lot, but our sport is definitely under-funded.”
Charney says, prior to the slashes in government funding in 2010, athletes had to pay out-of-pocket about $300 out of the tens of thousands of dollars needed for a season. Now it is much steeper.
Athletes today are expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single season. Charney’s most recent season cost her close to $50,000 – a price tag that was “impossible” to pay on her own. Though the cost of a skeleton season has remained significant, “We try to go for personal sponsorships, you know you do your best as an athlete to try and market yourself to try and find someone who is willing to support you whether it's for that year or all the way until the games but each one of us works a job, as well as 24/7 trying to promote ourselves and you know, try and find someone to pay for our seasons.”
In addition, Charney says that “there are grants and bursaries you can apply for and we all apply for every single one of them. Just so we can get through the year without eating tuna and rice all year long.”
Micaela Widmer, who is a former Canadian and Swiss national skeleton team athlete, agrees that the lack of funding has become a huge issue for the sport, being one of the main reasons she had to give up competing in the sport herself.
“I think the outrageous cost is less of a deterrent and more of someone saying ‘you can’t do this’ and my saying ‘watch me’.” – Madison Charney
“With cuts in funding, government funding, and federal and provincial funding cuts, the sport is not getting cheaper.” Widmer, who has worked as the assistant coach for the national development team at Canada Olympic Park for the past two years, adds that, “It’s becoming a barrier to the sport, and it's going to turn into athletes that can afford to do it and not athletes that deserve to do it.”
Athletes must look for sponsorships from individuals or companies on their own. Widmer thinks part of the reason it is becoming harder to find a sponsorship is due to the current economic climate in Alberta saying, “It’s hard to get that first meeting with someone to actually talk about what we can bring as athletes to a company. It's hard to get that meeting because they know you are going to be asking for money and it's money they don’t have.”
With the stagnate Alberta economy, it will continue to be a challenge for national level athletes like Charney, to raise the money required of them to compete. “Yeah, it really sucks, and I go weeks with zero dollars in my bank account,” Charney adds, “but somehow it always works out in the end.”
“I think the outrageous cost is less of a deterrent and more of someone saying ‘you can’t do this’ and my saying ‘watch me’.”
- By Liam Gillies