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U.S. has learned a few coins in pockets can mean medals on an athlete's neck THE ALBERTVILLE GAMES


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Bonny Warner can tell you what it means to have empty pockets and Olympic dreams.

It was 1981 and she was sharing floor space with desks, chairs and filing cabinets in the offices of the U.S. Luge Federation. Warner was sliding down icy mountain tracks during the day, scrounging for meals and then curling up at night in a sleeping bag.

"It was so bad that I went to a delicatessen and wrote an 89-cent check for a bowl of chili," she said. "Everyone laughed. Until the check bounced."

Eleven years later, Warner is coming to the end of her Olympic career. She is a flight engineer for United Airlines -- and a luger. She is a walking advertisement for the U.S. Olympic Committee's athletes assistance program.

"I'll still have to live month-to-month," she said. "But the USOC helped pay for my flight training. I was able to race for an extra four years and make this Olympic team because I was able to make a living."

Few of America's Winter Olympians will get rich quick. But at least they no longer need to bounce a check to get a meal.

Welcome to the era of the professional Olympian. We're not talking about the millionaire basketball stars and advertising billboards like Michael Jordan, who will play in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, or the global track phenoms like Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell, who command thousands of dollars in appearance fees. For every Olympic entrepreneur, there are hundreds of others who get by on five-and-dime budgets.

Four years ago in Calgary, Alberta, the USOC was humiliated into taking action, any action, to help support American athletes.

It was during the closing days of the 1988 Winter Olympics when New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner stormed into Canada. The United States was getting crushed in the medal count, finishing eighth overall behind Finland and the Netherlands, with two gold, one silver and three bronze.

Steinbrenner promised to chair a commission, to investigate the sources of American futility. He was "disgusted" that American athletes were underfunded.

His 11-member panel released a 21-page report. And money began flowing directly to athletes.

Now, as the 57 medal events begin at the Winter Olympics, U.S. athletes appear poised to give one of their best team performances, perhaps exceeding their total of 12 medals won in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1936 and again in 1980.

Talent wins medals at the Olympics. But money pays the training bills.

"Funding has changed dramatically," said Warner, 29, a three-time Olympian from Palo Alto, Calif. "You can't compete with the world if you don't train, and you can't train if you don't have money."

Athletes are now better funded, even if many struggle on subsistence wages or are in debt.

Gone are the days when Josh Thompson, the country's best biathlete, sold T-shirts out of the back of his station wagon.

Before 1988, only elite athletes, those ranked in the top six in the world, received cash grants under an Operation Gold program. The athletes' take: $2.2 million every four years.

But since the Calgary debacle, athletes designated by their national governing bodies as Olympic candidates have received at least $2,500 annually from the USOC and up to $12,500, plus tuition grants and job programs.

The total windfall from 1988 to 1992: $26 million.

Individual federations kick in money, too. Hockey players received $3,000 a month on a pre-Olympic tour. Figure skaters who were on the 1991 world champion team received at least $15,000 from their federation.

Still, the athletes need even more cash.

Meet Chuck Leonowicz, a 33-year-old bobsled driver from Clifton Park, N.Y. When he's not out on the World Cup circuit, he is running a landscaping company. Despite securing a sponsor, despite holding a job, he is more than $30,000 in debt -- all because of his devotion to speed on ice.

He is an Olympian, just like football-star-turned-bobsled-pusher Herschel Walker. But unlike Walker, Leonowicz is broke.

"I have to buy my sleds, for $20,000 each," he said. "This has been a hard year for everyone in this sport."

Tonight, when Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval appear in the Olympic pairs short program, consider their journey to the Olympics.

She is a 31-year-old waitress from Chicago, who until two years ago worked two jobs and trained full time. He is a 26-year-old operator of his own trucking firm in New Egypt, N.J.

"My trucks cost $90,000 each," he said. "It costs $90,000 a year for me to train."

To make ends meet, the pair held fund-raisers, distributing buttons in bars, shopping malls and beauty parlors. Still, they were in debt until they won the pairs title at last month's national championships in Orlando, Fla.

Now, a movie company has an option on their life stories.

"I wouldn't want it any other way," Urbanski said. "We worked hard to get where we are."

Their pockets are now full. And their dreams may yet be fulfilled.

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