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Trip to the Rio 2016 Olympics is expensive but worth it for athletes' families

Start with the cost, which would be prohibitive for many families. Then add in the logistical planning, booking a week-long trip — at least — to a foreign country for the first time. Then factor in the news stories coming out of Rio de Janeiro, where crime and the Zika virus have tainted the appeal of the host nation.

Suddenly, seeing your loved one compete in the Olympics is more complicated than you've dreamed it.

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For many athletes' families, going to the Olympics is unrealistic.

Four weeks after her son, Chase, qualified for the Games in swimming, Cathy Kalisz came to terms with the fact that she wouldn't be going. She figured she'd stay home, invite friends over and watch the races on TV.

But Kalisz's niece created a page on GoFundMe to raise money for Cathy to travel to Rio and watch her son swim. The page exceeded its $10,000 goal in the first two weeks.

"I was really touched when she told me what she set it at," Cathy Kalisz said. "I'm going to cry talking about it. It's very, very emotional for me."

Chase Kalisz, a 22-year-old Bel Air native who used to train at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, will swim the 400-meter individual medley at the Olympics after qualifying with a first-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June.

His preliminary race is the first one on the first day, Saturday, and both of his parents plan to go — a fantasy for some athletes.

"I guess across the world, probably a lot of athletes' parents don't go," Cathy Kalisz said. "Years of getting a child to this point doesn't leave a lot in the bank."

But somehow, many families find a way.

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Last summer, when triathlete Katie Zaferes' parents checked plane ticket prices out of curiosity, the cost was unaffordable for them.

But by the time Zaferes qualified for the Olympics in May, the prices had come down enough for her family to afford the trip. Zaferes, a Hampstead native and North Carroll alumna, will have her husband, Tommy; her parents, Mary Lynn and Bill Hursey; and her younger sister and cousin at the Games.

Wrestler Kyle Snyder's fan section in Rio will be among the biggest — about 15 people in total, including his brother, parents, high school coaches, parents' families, and girlfriend and her family. Snyder's party also received help from a GoFundMe page that generated more than $25,000 in two months. They'll watch defending world champion Kyle wrestle on Aug. 21 in the 97-kilogram division.

Organizing such a trip can be a logistical puzzle. First comes the flight, which can be up to $4,000 on its own, depending on the path. Only a handful of cities fly directly to Rio, and Baltimore isn't one of them, though Atlanta is a connecting flight away and New York is a short drive or train ride up the East coast.

The most complicated decision is where to stay. Team USA recommended booking agents and gave useful tips — verify prices on booking.com, for example — but didn't offer any financial assistance. There is, as Cathy Kalisz notes, no "Parents' Village," as there is Athletes' Village.

In her experience, most hotels are booked, and apartments in Rio cost four figures per night, with most owners asking for a full 21-day commitment. Kalisz's planning was complicated by the fact that her son secured an Olympic spot on June 26, leaving just over a month to make the reservations. She managed to find another swimming family to share an apartment, albeit a small one.

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"We don't really care," she said. "We need a place to sleep and a shower."

The Snyders are staying at an apartment building located a walkable one mile from the wrestling arena. That saves them from the stress of another uncertain and potentially expensive cost in transit. Though the family started looking early, even that arrangement was difficult to secure, with so many people coming to Rio at the same time.

"We were in panic mode, and we spent two full days searching on the Internet," Kyle's mom, Tricia, said.

Zaferes' family did the same thing, eventually settling on an Airbnb reservation near Copacabana Beach for about $2,000 total for the six nights.

Then there are the incidental costs besides transit. Travel to Rio requires vaccination beforehand and afterward, the first of which cost $400, according to Kalisz. In swimming, the Olympics administrators provide tickets to each athlete's parents for the preliminaries and, if their child makes it, the final. The family must buy any other tickets, though. Zaferes' family, for example, is going to a women's soccer match and a track and field event.

And the controversy surrounding Rio has been well-documented. Multiple reports have questioned the safety of the city during the Games. Friday, just a week before the opening ceremonies, Brazil's Ministry of Justice cut ties with the security firm it hired to run the Olympics — the firm didn't employ enough workers — and turned control over to the police force.

"I think we'll be cautiously optimistic," Tricia Snyder said. "There are places in Maryland you shouldn't go. There's places all over the country."

Another major concern is the Zika virus, especially for Kalisz, whose son Chase was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome when he was 8. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Zika virus can trigger Guillain-Barre, but the U.S. trainers have told Cathy Kalisz they will take all precautions.

All of the variables make for a complicated but anticipated trip for athletes families, who absorb steep expenses for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"This is the Olympics — it's kind of like the Super Bowl for football," Kyle Snyder's father, Steve, said. "It's a big event, the first time we've ever gone to something like this."

Even this opportunity didn't strike the Snyders until last week, when they attended an Olympic wrestling sendoff event in Columbus, Ohio, for Kyle and fellow Olympian Tervel Dlagnev.

"It's kind of surreal," Tricia Snyder said. "That's when it really hits you. That's where they're going. It's absolutely mind-blowing that in 24 days we'll be at the Olympics watching him wrestle."

twitter.com/jakelourim

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